10 April 2016

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.

© mathew 2017