In 2014 I wrote an article about salt in which I disparaged Himalayan pink salt. Perhaps I didn’t disparage it enough. It is still wildly popular, and egregious lies are still being told about it. Its proponents now claim that a double-blind placebo-controlled study has proved that it has health benefits. They are wrong: that study doesn’t prove any such thing!

What? Sea salt in the Himalayas?

Yes, the salt beds were deposited from ancient oceans 250 million years ago and the ocean layers were uplifted when the Himalayas formed. They were covered by lava and were enveloped in ice and snow for millennia. The salt was protected from modern day pollution and preserved in an untouched, pristine environment. So buzz words like natural, unpolluted, pure, and ancient come to mind and appeal to the gullible.

Why pink?

The color is due to impurities. Pure sodium chloride is white. It is ironic that pink Himalayan sea salt is advertised as “The purest salt available today.” Its very color belies that claim.

What health benefits are claimed?

It is alleged to store vibrational energy and to provide many specific health benefits. Here’s a typical list of claims:

  • Aids in vascular health
  • Supports healthy lungs and respiratory function
  • Promotes a stable pH balance within the cells
  • Reduces the signs of aging
  • Promotes healthy sleep patterns
  • Increases libido
  • Prevents muscle cramps
  • Increases hydration
  • Strengthen bones
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves circulation
  • Detoxifies the body of heavy metals

There is no evidence for these claims. They are speculations based on findings about larger amounts of minerals that are present only in minute amounts in pink Himalayan salt.

Mercola makes similar health claims and sells his own brand in which the:

array of elements forms a compound in which each molecule is interconnected. The connectedness allows the vibrational component of the 84 trace elements present in their natural mineral form in the salt to be in harmony with each other and adds to the ability to promote a healthy balance.

That’s pure pseudoscientific piffle.

It is also recommended for bathing and for use in a salt lamp to improve air quality and release negative ions, providing various health benefits such as taming allergies and asthma, boosting energy levels, and treating depression. There is no evidence that these lamps produce negative ions or improve your health. Even Snopes has pronounced the claims false.

84 trace minerals: so what?

Pink Himalayan sea salt is advertised to contain “the 84 trace minerals valuable to the body.” Naïve customers assume that more is better, and that we need more trace nutrients, so those 84 minerals ought to make pink Himalayan salt healthier than regular salt. That assumption is completely misguided.

Most sources list far fewer trace minerals and elements in the human body, from 41 to 60, some in barely detectable amounts. And many of those 60 are toxic and radioactive, not only useless to human physiology but harmful. Radioactive elements like uranium can be detected in trace amounts in the human body, but they should be considered contaminants, not useful nutrients.

I went back and looked at the spectral analysis. It is readily available online and reading it is illuminating. Only 15 minerals are known to play important roles in biological processes, and seven others are considered ““possibly essential but not confirmed.” By my count, only about a quarter of the minerals in Himalayan pink salt are nutrients that the human body can or might be able to use. The other three quarters are not recognized nutrients and would be better classified as contaminants. They have no known health benefits, and many of them are known to be harmful. The list includes many poisons like mercury, arsenic, lead, and thallium. It includes radioactive elements: radium, uranium, polonium, plutonium, and many others. Radiation causes cancer, and even tiny amounts are potentially harmful. The amounts of most of them are listed as less than a certain amount, from <1 ppm to <0.001 ppm, which could mean anything. It could mean there is none present, but bragging about the 84 minerals contained in pink Himalayan sea salt means the company is claiming all 84 are present.

Ironically, two minerals on the list, technetium and promethium, are listed as unstable artificial isotopes! No amount is given, presumably because they decay to something else before they can be measured. How do you suppose these manmade elements found their way into that pure, natural, pristine, ancient Himalayan sea salt? The entire analysis is a tribute to how good our labs have gotten at detecting minuscule levels of contaminants that can be found everywhere in our environment. Some of the amounts measured are less than one part per billion.

Even for the acknowledged nutrients, the amounts in sea salt are not enough to correct a nutritional deficiency if a deficiency exists; and if you are not deficient and already have obtained (for instance) all the magnesium atoms your body can use from trace amounts in your diet, adding a few extra magnesium atoms from sea salt wouldn’t be expected to improve your health in any way.

The study

The study they cite is described on the Himalayan Crystal Salt website. It was a 30 day double-blind placebo-controlled trial with 70 participants. 50 subjects were given a Himalayan Crystal Salt solution and told to take one teaspoon mixed into 8 oz of purified water upon rising. 20 subjects served as a control group and were given a placebo solution of a generic sea salt.

This does not appear to be a study published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is not listed on PubMed. They don’t provide a citation, title, or authors’ names. And their findings have not been replicated elsewhere; most published studies turn out to be wrong, so we should never believe a single study in isolation. They mention one corroborating reference: the book Water and Salt: The Essence of Life, which apparently offers only anecdotal patient reports. Neither the book nor the study constitute scientific evidence of health benefits.

The study used an “Optimal Wellness Test” that is computer-based and relies on a combination of 39 tests run on non-fasting urine and non-fasting saliva. The “Optimal Wellness Test” has not been validated and is not used anywhere except at Fenestra Labs, a questionable organization. RationalWiki characterizes Fenestra as a company that specializes in clinical trials for alternative medicine practitioners “in the cause of woo-laundering.” And the study allegedly found improvements only in the test’s measures of “mineralization, oxidative stress, and hydration.” Improvements in lab numbers on a questionable test are not indications of meaningful improvements in human health. Do people who use sea salt live longer, have fewer heart attacks, have fewer colds? Do their wounds heal faster? Are they less likely to develop cancer? How could we possibly know they are “healthier”? They measured blood pressures 3 times during the study, and since they didn’t comment on the results, we can assume that they were not even able to show that blood pressures went down, one of the benefits claimed for the product.

What about taste?

Even the claims that it tastes better are open to question. You can’t really know if it tastes better until you do a blind taste test. Humans are notoriously good at fooling themselves when they think they know what they are getting. For instance, there was a study where they put the same wine in two bottles, identical except for the price tag, and subjects consistently said they preferred the taste of the wine in the bottle with the higher price tag. I would be very surprised if the average person could distinguish between food prepared with Himalayan salt and regular salt.

Even if it tasted better, would it taste enough better to justify the much higher price and the possible risks of exposure to radiation and poisons?

Conclusion: silliness, not science

There is no evidence that pink Himalayan sea salt is healthier than regular table salt; if anything, there is reason to suspect it might be less healthy. It’s not “pure;” it’s full of contaminants. Its popularity is a triumph of marketing over science and common sense.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.