Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Amber teething beads and alternative quackery

Every once in a while, I'll happen across a story that outright makes me angry.  Usually this has to do with a woo-woo claim that doesn't just put the believer at risk, but others as well.

And it's worse when the ones whose health and safety are being put in danger are children.  Children depend on adults to make good decisions, and when hype, credulity, and commercialism team up to sell parents a bill of goods, it is placing an innocent individual in harm's way -- and one who is not capable of standing up for him/herself, or necessarily even recognizing the danger.

This is the case with the latest fad in "holistic baby care" -- amber teething beads.  I was first alerted to this oddball idea by a regular reader of Skeptophilia, who asked me if I'd ever heard of such a thing.  I hadn't.  But a little bit of research brought me here, where we are given the following combination of half-truths and outright falsehoods:
  • Amber releases "healing oils," which are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream.  (It doesn't.)
  • Amber is "electromagnetically alive" and "produces significant amount of organic, purely natural energy."  (Well, it can be electrically charged if you rub it with a silk cloth -- but then, so can a balloon, and I've never seen "holistic medicine" sites recommending wearing necklaces made of balloons.)
  • Amber contains succinic acid, which is good for you because it is an amino acid.  (Succinic acid is not an amino acid.)
  • Succinic acid is a therapeutically proven analgesic.  (This is true, but you can suck on a blob of amber all day and not absorb enough succinic acid to reduce any pain you might be experiencing.)
  • Wearing amber protects you against "the negative effects of electrical equipment such as computers, televisions, mobile phones, and microwave ovens."  (Controlled studies of exposure to electromagnetic fields from commonly-used equipment showed no health effects whatsoever, so there's nothing much to protect you from.)
  • Amber is good for you because tree resin has anti-microbial properties.  (A good antiseptic works much better.)
Then, at the bottom of the page, they write, "Please note: Amber Artisans does not dispense medical advice."

Oh, no?  Then what were the preceding paragraphs of hogwash?  These people -- who are only one of dozens of sites I found that are now hawking amber for teething babies -- are clearly dispensing medical advice.  Erroneous advice, but medical advice nonetheless.

I'm wondering how long it'll be before the first baby chokes to death on an amber necklace.  These things have screw clasps, and the silk cord that the beads are strung on is supposed to break if sufficient tension is given -- reducing the strangulation risk -- but what if a bead pops off the necklace and is inhaled?  And then, we have the problem of sites such as this one -- that claim that amber can be used for other purposes than soothing teething pain, such as treating rashes and fevers.  So, compound the (1) pseudoscientific claims, with (2) the choking and strangulation risk, and finally (3) the fact that gullible parents are being convinced that children with treatable illnesses will be cured by wearing a necklace, and potentially delay seeking good medical care, and perhaps now you'll see why the whole thing made me furious.

We have lots of ways of giving our children their best shot at healthy lives.  Good diet, exercise, and the usual suite of childhood vaccinations (sorry, anti-vaxers, you're simply wrong) are still the best bets for avoiding the illnesses that used to kill tens of thousands of children annually (and still do, in some countries where medical care is poor or nonexistent).  We now have an excellent understanding of how immunity works, and can use that knowledge to benefit those who depend on us.  And if we take the time to learn a little bit of genuine science, it can immunize us adults as well -- against the false claims of hucksters who are trying to sell us medically worthless items as cure-alls.


  1. Nice denouement!

    I've heard people mention using them, never thought much about it. Didn't know about all those bizarre claims.

  2. why then do so many people say they have worked for their children? Im not trying to be bratty just really wondering. They seem unsafe and useless to me but i know one person who says it was so amazing and she didn't know what she would have done with out it.

  3. you can find more about