What Exactly Are "Toxins," Anyway?

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If we had to pick one health buzzword from the past decade, it'd be "toxins." From celebs selling "detox tea" on Instagram to "clean" cosmetics that claim to be free of harmful compounds, the concept of "cleansing away toxins" is everywhere.

But what does "toxin" actually mean?

On its most basic level, a toxin is any compound that can have a harmful effect on your body. And when you think of toxins, you probably picture poisons – like cyanide – that are dangerous and deadly, even in small doses.

But the truth is, you're exposed to toxic substances every day. That's because any compound can become toxic. Even water, in high enough doses, can be toxic. Sounds crazy, right? It's strange but true, as this woman unfortunately found out when she entered a water-drinking contest and died.

Exposure to toxic substances can pose a serious risk to your health. So that means detox teas and cleanses are great for you, right?

Unfortunately, no. While "detox" products might not hurt you, they aren't going to rid your body of toxins, either. Here's why.

Your Body Can Already Deal with Toxins

That's because your body already has a built-in system for filtering toxins out of your body. Your liver can help detoxify your body from turning harmful compounds into less harmful (or virtually harmless) ones. And your kidneys help detox your body, too. They continually filter your blood, and allow some harmful substances to leave your body via your urine.

Your lungs get in on the action, too. While they aren't major detox organs, your airways are lined with molecular "oars," called cilia, which help move any particles or toxins up and out of your body.

What Happens if Your Natural Detox Systems Fail?

Of course, if your body could handle every toxin perfectly, nothing would truly be poisonous. Some toxins can overwhelm your body's built-in detox systems – if, for instance, your liver can't process a toxin quickly enough, it can build up in your body. Other toxins dissolve in fatty tissue, so they can stay in your body, dissolved in your fat cells, and cause ongoing problems.

With that said, detox teas and cleanses won't do a thing to remove toxins from your body. They can't make your liver or kidneys work any better. They might make you lose a few pounds, but that's about it – and that's the best-case scenario.

As Rush University Medical Center explains, some detox products might actually harm you. Some common detox procedures, like enemas, can damage your intestines – ironically, making it harder to remove toxins from your body via your poop. Other detox practices, like juice cleansing, can leave you temporary malnourished, which could mean you're more likely to get sick.

What's more, relying on detox products might keep you from seeking medical attention if you have been exposed to a toxin. And delaying medical attention gives a toxin more time to harm your body, potentially putting you in danger.

So Should You Worry About Toxins?

Kinda, but you need to keep your nerves in check. Environmental toxins do exist, which is why it's important to fight pollution and demand safer ingredients in your food, cosmetics and household products.

But you should pass on products that claim to help flush toxins from your body. They're a waste of money because they can't truly detoxify you. And, as you just read, they can cause more problems than they solve.

If you're worried about the toxins in your environment, talk to your doctor. They can put your nerves in check – and offer proven treatments if you truly are exposed to too many toxins.

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About the Author

Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.