What is snake oil?

How Does Snake Oil Work?

Originally snake oil came from China and was known as shéyóu. Here it was used as a remedy for inflammatory pain and particularly joint pain. It is still used for this purpose today. Elsewhere however it has been used for many other purposes – such as a cure for male pattern baldness in ancient Egypt when mixed with lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, tomcat oils and Nubian ibex. The reason it widely believed to be effective is that it contains more eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) than any other sources.

The exact ingredients of most snake oils you would buy today vary greatly, but would tend to be around 75% carrier material, and 25% oils from Chinese water snakes which would consist of the aforementioned EPA which is an omega-3 fatty acid, along with myristic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid and linoleic acid.

Healing benefits.

Snake oil was regarded as something that was a very effective cure for a lot of different kinds of things, especially for things like rheumatism and arthritis.

Some advertisements went a step further and claimed it could cure a sore throat, catarrh, hay fever, cramps and even deafness.Whether or not it helped in every case isn’t totally clear.

“But certainly, in the cases of arthritis, it seems like it did make a difference.”

It was used medicinally in many different cultures because of the benefits from the omega-3 fatty acids found in the flesh of certain snakes, particularly the water snake in China. This could have been why it seemed to help with ailments such as arthritis.”

But whatever the origins, the idea was that snake oil in this form was actually helpful and curative.”

In the 19th century, the American pioneers, who’d likely heard about the reputed healing benefits of snake oil, would capture many of the native rattlesnakes and sent them off to be turned into oil in the hope of making some extra money.

Snake oil was also cheaper than other available medicines at the time. So when unorthodox medical practitioners started selling it on the travelling medicine show circuits, the public was open to trying it.

What’s in it?

Initially the product was what it claimed to be — namely actual snake oil. But over the years, it became unclear exactly what was in these remedies. That was until the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act came into force and investigators began taking a closer look.

It turned out that snake oil wasn’t as authentic as it was purported to be.

Modern implications.

False health products described by medical experts as “snake oil” continue to be marketed during the 21st century, including herbal medicines, dietary supplements, products such as Tibetan singing bowls (when used for healing) and treatments such as vaginal steaming. The company Goop has been accused of “selling snake oil” in some of its health products and recommendations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Xinhua News Agency claimed that the herbal product Shuanghuanglian can prevent or treat infections from coronaviruses, stimulating sales across the United States, Russia and China. However, these claims have no basis in science.


Theodoros Manfredi, “Health Benefits of Snake Oil”،

Snake oil was used as traditional medicine throughout history. How did it get such a bad name? /

زيت الثعبان/

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