Rational self maintenance

People shower a lot. On average, every day. Scientists seem to think that the amount we need to shower is more like once or twice a week. I’m on the scientific end of the spectrum in winter, and more average in summer when it’s disgustingly hot here. My main problem with showers in winter is that eventually you have to get out of them.

So apparently daily showers are yet another thing we were convinced to do by advertisers, in order to sell more product. Not quite as stupid as douching with Lysol or pouring Listerine on your head, but still not anything like as useful as we believe.

I’m a very evidence-driven person. When I moved to the USA and discovered toothpaste brands were different, I read Consumer Reports to find out what they had found was most effective, bought that, and learned to like it. A year or two ago I heard there were some better options, so I read more reviews and started buying a different toothpaste. And yes, toothpaste is worth using — though mostly because of the fluoride. Actual differences in cleaning between pastes are pretty minimal, and most of the add-on features (whitening! breath strips! advanced!) are useless or purely cosmetic.

Fancy electric toothbrushes, on the other hand, are a pretty clear win. As with the pastes, though, most of the add-on features they try to upsell you are useless, so just buy the cheapest one.

So when I see a new product claim, I tend to be pretty skeptical. A few weeks back I was at the drugstore looking for some glucosamine/chondroitin tablets that weren’t the size of horse tranquilizers, because I was having to crush up the ones I had bought the last time, and they taste disgusting. My particular problem is my knees — generally one of them will flare up for no readily apparent reason, and be painful for some months.

I saw new tablets that claimed to be good for joint health. They contain “UC-II®” collagen. Thanks to the wonders of today’s smartphone technology, I could do a quick Google search on the spot, and I found a paper suggesting that UC-II is at least somewhat effective against arthritis pain. So I decided to try them. They worked! Much more effective than glucosamine/chondroitin, and they’re tiny.

This made me think (not for the first time) that what would be really useful would be a web site called “Bullshit or not?” where you could enter a product claim and get a quick summary of whether that claim is true, complete bullshit, undetermined, plausible but with weak evidence, and so on — followed by links to relevant studies. A kind of Snopes, but specifically for consumer products. If anyone knows of such a site, I’d be interested to hear about it. Obviously there are sites like RationalWiki, but they lack a good enough search engine and strong consumer focus. Consumer Reports often answer the questions, but the info is usually buried in articles about how to buy a category of product.

3 thoughts on “Rational self maintenance

  1. I’ve been using UC-II in conjunction with tumeric for years because it definitely helps my arthritic knees. I am in my 60s and still play basketball 3-4 times a week. Recently the maker of the UC-II/tumeric supplement I use added boron to their capsule, claiming there is evidence for its effectiveness. The product is called Joint Renewal by Newport Natural Health. https://store.newportnaturalhealth.com/030955081243_PARENT.html

    My favorite “bullshit or not” site for supplements is http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/snake-oil-supplements/ . It would indeed be useful to have a site that covered all kinds of products.

  2. It’s a good idea, albeit with a couple problems (not to say dealbreakers, just things to consider):
    1) the business model for this would be hard to work out (Consumer Reports uses subscription only, I think)
    2) given #1, the temptation to do open-source/all volunteer would be great, and that would be pretty easy for any dedicated corporation to game (Wikipedia has had to fight this battle a lot, I’m told).
    3) in some cases (esp. diet), even the best science on the topic changes a lot, sometimes doing a full 180 in a decade (e.g. peanuts in baby food ok?)

    None of which means it couldn’t/shouldn’t be done, of course

  3. So, in Germany there is the publicly funded yet independent Stiftung Warentest (https://www.test.de/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiftung_Warentest) and the commercial version competing with them, called Ökotest (https://www.oekotest.de). They are not as comprehensive as you wish, which I suppose is a capacity problem, particularly if you want to get things legally tight. But what’s available there (best access through buying individual articles/tests on the website) are tests of the major products of any consumer products and services (test.de have a service branch called Finanztest). As Germany is (unlike in many other areas) among the leaders in consumer protection (“Verbraucherschutz”) these might be the closest of what you want to get. If you drop me an email I can send you an exemplary PDF.

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