‘Detox’ clay may have dangerous amounts of lead, FDA says

Among the many ways to “detox,” eating clay has got to be one of the least palatable. It’s drawn headlines and accolades from celebrity adherents, despite the fact that there is little evidence to support its touted benefits. Now, the Food and Drug Administration says that the reality may be even worse — so-called bentonite clay can have dangerously high lead levels.

The FDA focused on“Bentonite Me Baby,” a brand of powdered clay sold at stores including Target and Sally Beauty Supply. The label says it can be used as a facial or hair mask, or for ingestion. However laboratory testing found that the product has a lead concentration of 37.5 parts per million (ppm). By comparison, the FDA says that lead levels above .05 ppm in fruit juice “may constitute a health hazard.”

In a press release, the company that markets the clay, Alikay Naturals, said that their product is more similar to a cosmetic like lipstick than a food — and, therefore, lead standards for food should not be applied to it.

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The FDA doesn’t place a limit on the amount of lead allowed in most foods. Candies and food products frequently consumed by children do have such a limit, since lead has much more damaging effects on children.

The agency says it hasn’t confirmed any lead poisoning reports from use of the product but still urged consumers not to buy or use the clay.

The investigation began a few days after Christmas when Megan Curran de Nieto, director of community health programs at Saint Paul-based CLEARCorps, was walking through Target. One product in particular caught her eye — a jar of bentonite clay.

Curran de Nieto was reminded of a conversation with a local family struggling with high levels of lead in their blood. That family had been using a different variety of bentonite clay. The clay may or may not have had anything to do with the lead in their blood, but it stuck in Curran de Nieto’s head.

And they weren’t the only ones — bentonite clay has a following among celebrities and regular juice drinkers, like consumers of Juice Generation’s “Pure Earth” shot. Some clays say they are for external use only, while others instruct consumers to consume them daily.

This jar of “Bentonite Me Baby” provided recommendations for consumers to use the clay as a face mask or hair mask, and also indicated that it could be ingested.

“Internal: Works to aid in colon and detox cleansing to remove harmful toxins from the body, which helps many things including raising energy levels,” the label read in part.

So Curran de Nieto bought a jar of “Bentonite Me Baby” and sent it to a lab in Georgia to measure the lead content. The results came back: 29 parts per million.

That lead level could be especially dangerous for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Lead poisoning during pregnancy can cause birth defects, mental retardation, or miscarriage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Curran de Nieto alerted the Minnesota Department of Public Health. They passed on the lab test results to the FDA, but did not perform their own test. Less than two weeks later, the FDA posted the warning on their website.

In the firm’s press release, Alikay Naturals founder Rochelle Graham-Campbell said that the label “never provided the recommendations or recipes for internal consumption.” She said that the company does not support children using the clay.

According to the FDA, Alikay has not voluntarily recalled the product.

Alikay did not respond to requests for comment.

This story has been updated with the results of FDA lab testing. 

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