How TikTok profits off dangerous health trends

Illustration of five sets of eyes focusing on a TikTok logo. You can see darkened silhouettes of people talking and passing money to others within the logo.
Paige Vickers/Vox

Castor oil won’t dissolve cysts and tumors. Some creators on TikTok Shop are earning commissions by suggesting otherwise.

For the past few weeks, TikTok creator Busy Belle has been telling her nearly 30,000 followers that castor oil, if applied to the belly button, can fight bacterial infections and dissolve tumors. She’s posted several videos to TikTok Shop, the platform’s new e-commerce tool, promoting Aliver Jamaican Black Castor Oil. One of these videos has more than 1.5 million views and the product she links to lists more than 33,000 total sales. Belle presumably got a cut from more than a few of these.

“The people who are like, ‘Eh, blah blah blah, TikTok people are just lying,’” Belle says in one video. “No, we are not. Why would I be posting about it? I’m a Taurus, I don’t lie, okay?” She said her routine involves “lathering” herself with castor oil once a week, adding, “I’m telling everybody to do it. It’s natural and why not.”

Although castor oil has been sold (with little evidence) as a cure-all for ages, it’s recently become trendy, and its sales are getting a boost from influencers and stores claiming that it can relieve a wide range of ailments. Its popularity spans several social platforms. But on TikTok, creators like Busy Belle can make you feel as though you were fated to discover a new trend that promises to make you feel or look better.

Recommendation algorithms can feel magical when they deliver what you want. And when they work, you might be tempted to interpret the eerie insights as evidence that the algorithm knows you better than you know yourself. Get a steady stream of posts and videos about a certain topic and you might start to wonder if your feed is trying to tell you something about yourself. So in the land of wellness influencers on TikTok — and the diaspora of niches that draw from this space — you might feel as though a promised treatment or cure “found” you just when you needed it most.

Social media platforms like TikTok have always been filled with snake oil salesmen and wellness influencers pushing questionable cleanses and protocols. But the US rollout of the TikTok Shop in September has shined a spotlight on how dubious online wellness advice and TikTok’s trend cycles work together to find new audiences, and how they repackage ineffective or dangerous health remedies that have been around for years. Creators shilling parasite cleanses, detox drinks, miracle cures, and promoting oils and tinctures with overbroad health claims have all been pushed onto the For You Pages of TikTok users in recent weeks.

TikTok Shop is an in-app marketplace selling an unfathomable amount of products that have become, or aspire to become, viral must-haves. Its listings are a river of offerings from verified brands, to scammy or counterfeit copies of popular items, to the sort of cheap apparel and household goods you might expect on Wish or Temu. It’s designed to help the company make money off the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt phenomenon, where viral attention drives viewers to buy everything from vegetable choppers to beauty products to portable carpet steamers. Instead of jumping to Amazon or another third-party online store, TikTok Shop incentivizes users to buy products directly in the app.

The Shop also provides a revenue stream for creators, who can make “affiliate” videos promoting products found in the shop. Instead of a paid sponsorship arrangement, affiliates make a commission from sales. Some influencers and companies have been able to use the Shop to monetize trends by targeting TikTok’s young users in order to sell ineffective, dangerous, or unethical products.

The mechanisms for this sort of targeting predate the Shop launch. Earlier this year, some wellness TikTok creators popularized the dangerous and ineffective practice of drinking borax diluted in water. Fitness influencers have also previously promoted “dry scooping” protein powder, which experts say is not a good idea. Merchants have even used TikTok’s popularity with younger viewers to push steroids and steroid-like drugs, according to a recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Researchers found that videos promoting these substances, at times appearing to target teenagers, were viewed more than 500 million times on TikTok, mostly by people younger than 24. Those videos shill products on behalf of third-party merchant sites, and the influencers making the content get a commission for sales. (The report’s data precedes the launch of TikTok Shop in the US.)

“Alternative” health trends do well on TikTok because they provide recommendations that are “cheap, accessible, and explained through a scientific-adjacent explanation that feels familiar,” Rachel Moran, who studies health misinformation as a postdoc scholar at the University of Washington, told Vox earlier this year. But there’s another factor at play here: Personal anecdotes, a powerful marketing tool on TikTok, have long been a core evangelizing tool for dubious wellness and health advice. And even TikTok influencers with apparent credentials and large followings might be giving out compromised advice. A recent Washington Post investigation found that American Beverage, a lobbying group for the soft drink industry, had paid 10 registered dietitians to promote the benefits of artificial sweeteners on social media in response to the World Health Organization’s warning that aspartame might cause cancer.

What’s happening on TikTok Shop is an extension of these trends, for those who can get their products past the platform’s moderation tools. While steroids and borax “detox” mixes aren’t necessarily showing up in the Shop tab, some dubious wellness trends are finding success there by offering products that have some legitimate uses, just perhaps not those being promoted by those getting paid to sell them. Castor oil, for example, has been surging in popularity this summer as a wellness hack, but it’s also an FDA-approved laxative and an ingredient in some skin care products and eye drops. Creators advertising on behalf of castor oil merchants on TikTok Shop, however, are making much broader claims, ones often not backed by any scientific evidence.

Which brings us back to influencers, like Busy Belle, who have been pushing castor oil’s health benefits and encouraging people to buy products that influencers will get a commission for selling. While castor oil may help moisturize your skin and hair, claims about stimulating hair growth or reversing wrinkles are not supported by research. Claims about castor oil’s ability to improve eye health also aren’t backed up by any high-quality research, according to a recent close look at the oil’s new status as a wellness trend in the New York Times. And while it’s unlikely that applying castor oil to your skin will cause any serious issues, it won’t penetrate your body and dissolve tumors and cysts.

By early October, #CastorOil had at least 925 million views on TikTok, according to the platform’s page for the hashtag, and many of the top videos specifically promote applying the oil to your belly button. In one TikTok Shop video advertising Aliver’s castor oil, a beauty creator with 99,000 followers who goes by @mtagbeauty tells viewers to “start slow” with castor oil, claiming that it’s such an effective detox regime that some people might feel a bit sick if starting too strong. Other Shop videos about castor oil claim that it can treat anxiety, boost the immune system, and treat arthritis.

Some sponsored videos use audio from a popular lecture from Barbara O’Neill, an Australian activist who has promoted treating cancer with baking soda and claims that all vaccines are harmful. In it, O’Neill says that if castor oil is applied on or around the belly button, “it will heal any problems in the abdomen,” that the oil will “penetrate” and break up cysts and fibroids in the uterus, and heal constipation and diarrhea by “penetrating” into the colon. In the same lecture, she claims it can cure cancer in the abdomen and brain (none of these things are true). O’Neill is not permitted to provide health services in Australia, after a health care watchdog investigation found in 2019 that she was not accredited, had not earned any health-related degrees or diplomas, and was, under the guise of a naturopathic medical practitioner, providing her patients with false, potentially deadly advice and encouraging them to forgo chemotherapy in favor of her preferred, ineffective, cancer “cures.”

Some of the recent castor oil videos appear to violate TikTok Shop’s policies against selling “unlicensed medicines, herbal or homeopathic products, and those making health claims,” weight loss supplements, and “beauty and personal care products that claim to have medical applications but are not verified by the United States Food and Drug Administration.” But it’s not clear whether these rules apply to the TikTok Shop listing, the TikTokers being paid to advertise these products, or both — even when an item’s popularity seems to be tied directly to a questionable health practice that has become a trend.

This current castor oil trend on TikTok can feel like a multimedia assault on the For You page of anyone who has indicated to the algorithm that they’re interested in the topic or even wellness trends in general. See enough videos advertising Aliver’s castor oil — of which there are many — and you might start getting videos shilling the company’s other beauty offerings, including its aphrodisiacs and skin-lightening products, which are also against Shop rules.

Whenever a new bad trend gets attention — whether it’s drinking borax, pushing ineffective cancer “cures,” or selling vaccine “detox” concoctions — social media platforms eventually swoop in, enforce their rules, and emphasize that the majority of users on the platform aren’t seeing the content in question. The attention fades, the influencers regroup, and the cycle begins again.

TikTok Shop is a new era for the platform, one that makes it even easier for the company to monetize trends in real time instead of being outpaced by the astonishing speed of TikTok fame. But rule enforcement, context, and caution continue to lag behind.

A version of this story was also published in the Vox Technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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