February 21, 2019
6 Health-Related Catalog Products: Are They For Real?

6 Health-Related Catalog Products: Are They For Real?

by Jeanine Barone  

Chock full of devices, gizmos, tools, and travel accessories, specialty catalogs have always been highly tempting to leaf through. You may know the inflight SkyMall catalog (now available online) or still receive catalogs from such companies as the Sharper Image and Hammacher Schlemmer. The products promise to banish headaches, back pain, and restless sleep, while boosting energy, creativity, and muscle tone.

Are they too good to be true—or not worth their often-steep prices? Check out these six products and see for yourself.

Blue-Light Sleep Masks (about $30 to $40)

Sleep masks that emit a blue light on the inside are said to stimulate brain waves associated with a relaxed (alpha) state of mind. (There are also devices that project a blue light onto the ceiling.) As you stare at the blue bands, they gradually fade away, and this is supposed to help you slip into sleep. But studies have been inconsistent as to how color, including blue light, might affect one’s state of arousal. Curiously, blue light emitted from computer monitors, laptops, and smartphones can disrupt sleep by suppressing melatonin, the sleep-facilitating hormone. The companies that make the masks say that the level of blue light isn’t strong enough to affect melatonin, but who knows for sure? Some of the supposed benefit of watching the blue light may also simply be from a meditation-like effect where focusing on something induces relaxation. How do they rate? In a very informal user trial of one brand of sleep mask, some volunteers found it helpful, while others said it was uncomfortable and kept them awake.

UV Skin Patches (about $6, plus app download)

New wearable products tell you how much ultraviolet (UV) light you’ve been exposed to, via skin patches or bracelets. One product, the My UV Patch, is a small, thin, heart-shaped sticker that you place on a part of your body that is exposed to the sun. Photosensitive dyes in it change color in response to UV. The patches—which can be worn for up to three days—work in conjunction with an app on your phone, which, taking into account your skin tone, eye and hair color, and UV index at your location, keeps track of your UV exposure to make sure you are not exceeding your limit. The app also provides tips on sun-safe behavior, including reapplying sunscreen. But it’s unclear whether these patches accurately measure UV exposure (there are no apparent published studies), and, even if they do, what do such results actually mean? Though such products may help educate people about sun protection, some are self-promotional, recommending the company’s own brand of sunscreens.

Tinnitus Relieving Wand (about $90)

People who have tinnitus—characterized by irritating and often incessant ringing, buzzing, and clicking sounds in the ears—will try just about anything to get relief. Might a vibrating wand that massages areas in and around the ear do the trick? The device is said to work by “soothing” the auditory nerve; it also produces a low hum similar to white noise. A small study in the International Journal of Audiology in 2016 found that the wand (brand name Reltus) provided short-term tinnitus suppression, attributed to the sounds it emitted rather than the massaging action or vibrations. But reviews on Amazon were split, with 32 percent giving it a 5-star rating, while 47 percent gave it just 1 star. In other reviews, some people found it made their tinnitus worse.

Personal Oxygen Bar (about $400)

Oxygen bars, where you inhale plain or scented oxygen through a tube, have been around for a while, touted to make you feel calm yet alert and energized. Now there are portable oxygen devices designed for personal use. But breathing oxygen at sea level won’t do much for a healthy person. Our red blood cells are already saturated with all the oxygen we can use. Evidence is inconsistent, at best, that supplemental oxygen may improve some kinds of cognitive function in some people. On the other hand, breathing higher than normal concentrations of oxygen has been shown to increase oxidative stress. While the clinical significance of this is not known, it may have some toxic effects on various parts of the body, such as the eyes.

LED Gum Health Stimulator (about $100-$150)

Phototherapy (light therapy) is one tool that dentists can use to improve oral health. Blue light, for instance, kills off bacteria involved in periodontal disease. Light therapy may also reduce gum swelling, increase connective tissue, and have other dental benefits. But why go to the dentist when you can do it yourself at home? The LED Gum Health Stimulator is a mouth-guard-like device that uses infrared, along with red and blue light-emitting diodes. The problem is there are no studies on it—or other similar devices. Moreover, not everyone is a good candidate for light therapy. If the wavelengths and power levels of the light are not tailored to the individual, the therapy can damage gum tissue. Because of this risk, phototherapy should be managed only by a periodontist.

Six-Pack Ab Stimulators (about $80 and up)

Can getting a six-pack look be as easy as hooking up your abs to electrodes and stimulating the muscles with a low-level electrical current? These devices use transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation (TENS) and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), similar to what’s used by physical therapists to rehabilitate muscles weakened by injury or surgery.

Some preliminary research suggests that electronic muscle stimulators may be able to strengthen, tone, or firm a muscle, at least as long as you keep doing it. One small industry-funded study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2005 found that users of an electrical stimulation belt (five days a week for 20- to 40-minute sessions over two months) had improvements in abdominal strength and endurance compared with a control group, and they also lost a little over one inch in their waist circumference.

But results from many dissatisfied customers suggest otherwise. The Federal Trade Commission has filed complaints against several electric stimulator belt manufacturers, charging them with false advertising. And, according to the FDA, while there may be a temporary improvement in the tone or strength of a muscle, the agency has not cleared any devices for claims of “rock hard” abs, reduced waist girth, or weight loss. People who have a pacemaker, defibrillator, or other implanted electrical device should not use these products.