Diatomaceous earth, also called kieselguhr or diatomite, is a naturally-occurring sedimentary rock made mostly of silicon dioxide (sand).
However, if you’ve heard of diatomaceous earth, it was probably being touted as a dietary supplement.
Companies claim that diatomaceous earth helps treat a variety of health problems. Marketers usually say that diatomaceous earth can detox your body, increase weight loss and fat burning, lower high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, relieve joint pain, improve bone health, cleanse your digestive tract of toxin build up, reverse hair loss, and improve well being and overall health.
Despite these claims, there’s only one human study on the effects of consuming diatomaceous earth, and there isn’t any compelling scientific evidence that it’s helpful as a dietary supplement. It may even be dangerous.
This article will look at the research behind diatomaceous earth, and why you might want to avoid taking it internally.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) was first discovered in North Germany in 1836 by a peasant named Peter Kasten.
Typically, diatomaceous earth forms due to the buildup of silica, a mineral that comes from the bodies of microscopic plankton called diatoms.
These fossilized exoskeletons of diatoms, which are tiny, single-celled microalgae, are found in soil, freshwater lakes, and oceans throughout the world. Deposits of DE exist all over the earth.
Diatomaceous earth contains about 80-95% silica, with trace amounts of aluminum oxide and iron oxide[*]. It has a texture somewhere between flour and sand. The plankton that make up DE have shells with sharp edges that resemble shards of glass under a microscope.
Due to its ability to absorb moisture, DE is used as a desiccant (drying) insecticide, where it dehydrates the exoskeleton of insects, causing them to die of dehydration. It is effective against bed bugs, ticks, and other insects, including food pests[*].
Some farmers also add diatomaceous earth to livestock feed to discourage pests and also to kill internal worms and parasites in their animals.
It also works as a cleaner because of its abrasive texture, and to filter and absorb impurities, which makes it useful in industrial manufacturing.
Amorphous or non-crystalline diatomaceous earth is the most common type of DE. It is used as an insecticide, filler, and anti-caking agent.
In this type of diatomaceous earth, the silica particles from the fossilized diatoms are a variety of different sizes.
In pool filtration and some industrial applications, diatomaceous earth is heated until the silica crystallizes.
Crystalline silica is much smaller than the silica found in unprocessed diatomaceous earth. It forms a fine dust that can damage your lungs if you inhale it. Crystalline silica is toxic to humans and other mammals, including pets.
Food-grade diatomaceous earth is less than 2% crystalline silica. The term “food-grade” implies that DE is safe to consume, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
While food-grade DE is approved by the EPA, FDA, and USDA for filtering foods during processing, it is not approved for human consumption. Food-grade DE is an industrial filtering compound, not a dietary supplement.
Some people tout the benefits of food-grade diatomaceous earth as a health supplement. Marketers claim food-grade DE can help you lose weight, kill parasites, lower blood pressure, regulate your bowel movements, remove drug residues, cleanse your digestive system, reduce your risk of heart disease, provide your body with trace minerals, enhance bone, hair, and nail growth, and detoxify your body.
Unfortunately, there is no good evidence or rationale for any of these claims. They are unsupported by scientific studies or other research.
Here’s a look at the most common claims about the benefits of diatomaceous earth.
A Good Source of Silica
Silicon dioxide (also called silica) makes up about 60% of the earth’s crust. It’s common in plants, animals, soil, rocks, and sand.
In humans, silica is an essential micronutrient. Silica influences immune function, prevents heavy metal accumulation, and maintains the structural integrity of your nails, hair, skin, collagen, and bone[*].
Since diatomaceous earth is at least 80% silica, some people speculate that it may be a good dietary source of silica. Although the silica found in DE is insoluble, this type of silica may still convert to other bioavailable forms of silica[*].
However, silica is in almost every type of food. Meat, vegetables, fruits, grains, and teas all contain silica[*]. You’re almost guaranteed to get more than enough silica from your diet. There’s no benefit to supplementing it.
Another claimed benefit of diatomaceous earth is that it cleanses your digestive tract, or that it enables you to detox or remove toxins from your body.
While it’s true that diatomaceous earth can remove heavy metals from water (which is one reason it’s a popular material for industrial-grade filters), there is no evidence that it does the same in your digestive tract.
Diatomaceous earth has a pumice-like texture, which is why cleaning or scrubbing products often include it as an ingredient. Some people claim that DE can “scrub out” your intestinal lining, removing parasites and toxins.
No studies have found that DE is good for your digestive tract, or for any kind of detoxification.
In fact, you should avoid eating DE. Your intestinal lining is delicate, and doesn’t need “scrubbing.” There is no known benefit to eating an abrasive compound like diatomaceous earth.
Remember that, with rare exceptions, detoxing is mostly a myth. Your body has a powerful set of detox organs built in — your liver, kidneys, and lymphatic system are experts at getting rid of toxins.
Unless you’ve been exposed to high levels of heavy metals (from working in a mine or eating high-mercury fish every day, for example), you probably don’t need to detox anything.
If you think you need to detox, try these proven ways to support your natural detox process:
- Liver support through good nutrition
Cilantro and spirulina are also useful for removing heavy metals from your body, but if you suspect you have accumulated toxic amounts of heavy metals, you should speak to a trusted doctor about testing and, if necessary, chelation therapy.
A single, small study — which happens to be the only human study ever performed to using diatomaceous earth — showed that consuming DE may improve cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol[*].
The study was conducted using 19 people with high cholesterol. They took 250 milligrams of diatomaceous earth three times per day for eight weeks. Their total cholesterol decreased by 13.2%, and their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol also decreased.
But because this was a small study with no control group or placebo, the results aren’t particularly compelling.
Even if you did want to lower your cholesterol, and even if diatomaceous earth were shown to be effective, the risks of taking diatomaceous earth internally — discussed in the next section — would make it a poor choice.
In diatomaceous earth factories, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases were significant problems up until the 1950s[*]. After that, filtration, ventilation, and other safety practices reduced workers’ exposure to the dust, and their risk of lung disease and deaths associated with lung disease decreased[*].
While food-grade diatomaceous earth is relatively safe to handle compared to crystallized DE, it still contains up to 2% crystalline silica. The crystalline silica in food-grade DE can inflame your lungs and cause scarring (fibrosis) if you inhale it.
If you are going to use diatomaceous earth, be certain you don’t inhale it.
Silicon Dioxide Toxicity
While most silicon dioxide particles in diatomaceous earth are between 10 and 200 micrometers, the particle size can vary between different samples depending on their age and location of origin.
Cell studies indicate that DE’s sharp edges and drying properties may rupture cells, especially red blood cells, and may have inflammatory properties[*]. Other evidence using hamster embryos also confirms the cell toxicity of amorphous DE particles[*].
Silicon dioxide nanoparticles 10-15 nanometers in size have toxic effects in the liver, kidney, lung, and testes of mice[*].
Although typical DE particles are at least 100 times bigger than this, the particle size and shape of diatomaceous earth varies because it’s a naturally occurring product, and there’s no standardization or quality control in the industry.
Dry Skin and Acne
Diatomaceous earth absorbs water, and regularly applying it to your skin can disrupt your skin barrier, increasing your risk of acne, as well as causing dry skin[*]. Many natural cosmetics include DE because of its supposed detoxifying ability. You’re better off avoiding DE in skincare.
However, DE it’s not a wise choice for human consumption. There’s no good scientific evidence to show that DE has any benefits. It can dry out your skin and cause lung damage if you inhale it, and it may be toxic to your cells[*].
More and better studies would help draw conclusions about what diatomaceous earth does to the human body. But until that happens, you’re best off skipping diatomaceous earth as a dietary supplement.