Right around January 1 the past few years, Google searches for “pink Himalayan salt” spike like your blood pressure after consuming a bucket of French fries. To become a better, healthier version of yourself, apparently, you absolutely must switch to using luscious pink-tinged salt crystals instead of those factory-refined white grains. Or so wellness experts and influencers might lead us to believe—and lots of us probably want to believe so we can feel less bad about craving salt.
While all trendy foods have hyperbole built into their marketing (looking at you, bone broth aka expensive meat tea) pink Himalayan salt might take the cake: Yes, it costs more, but it’s natural, unrefined salt with dozens of minerals and elements that’s extracted by hand from mines untouched by pollution! And it looks nice!
As Amanda Mull recently wrote in The Atlantic, we can attribute pink salt’s popularity to its pleasing appearance combined with trendy concepts of wellness in which “single foods or ingredients end up with a vague reputation for quasi-medicinality, often based on notions of their purity or naturalness.”
OK fine, but is pink salt healthier than regular table salt?
The wellness claims about pink salt range from dumb to dangerous. Dr. Axe says pink Himalayan salt is “cleaner” and more nutritious than regular salt. His site even swears it’s a natural sleep inducer. GOOP promises its $40 Pink Himalayan Salt Scrub will “detoxify” your skin. SoWell.com swears breathing pink salt-ified air will cure your asthma—and conveniently sells the inhaler pipe that will deliver your respiratory salvation. And finally, there’s this mumbo-jumbo over on HimalayanCrystalSalt.com about a 2007 study using an Optimized Wellness Analyzer to evaluate pink salt’s effect on “wellness” versus a placebo. Surprise: The pink salt group scored healthier when evaluated by the wellness analyzer. Less of a surprise: I couldn’t find the study on PubMed or Google Scholar, and the website doesn’t cite which peer-reviewed journal the study was published in.
If any of these claims are valid(ish), it’s that pink salt may have more minerals than purified white salt—but it’s a drop in the bucket. “Himalayan salt does contain trace amounts of minerals like potassium, magnesium, iron, and more, but the amounts are insignificant and afford no additional health benefits,” says Jeff McGrath, a clinical dietitian at Westchester Medical Center, the university hospital of New York Medical College. And as long as you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, you’re probably not in need of these elements, McGrath says. (In case you’re wondering where the salt’s rosy hue comes from, it probably comes from “Iron oxide, AKA rust,” says Catherine Brennan, a Rhode Island-based registered dietitian. Yum.)
Speaking of its nutritional value, pink Himalayan salt usually doesn’t contain significant amounts of iodine, which is an essential nutrient, Brennan says. While iodine deficiencies are uncommon in the United States (thanks to salt with iodine added, aka iodized salt), it’s a real problem around the globe. “Iodine’s main function is as an important component of thyroid hormones,” Brennan says.“Persons deficient in iodine cannot make enough thyroid hormone, which can lead to hypothyroidism, or even enlargement of the thyroid—known as goiter."
And, “Ironically, Himalayan pink salt also contains barely detectable amounts of elements that would be harmful if isolated and consumed in large doses, such as arsenic and uranium,” McGrath says.
Claims that Himalayan salt is somehow more natural or pure than regular table salt are hard to verify—and may not really matter. “In the current food world, the term ‘natural’ means very little,” Brennan says. Yes, white salt is cleaned, heated, and treated with anti-caking agents, she explains, but sometimes a little bit of scrubbing can be a good thing. “Depending on the source, pink salt may contain some harmful trace minerals such as lead.”
If you want to keep buying pink Himalayan salt, that’s fine—just know that it’s not any better for you than boring, old white salt. And sorry not sorry: Pink Himalayan salt-laced potato chips, popcorn, and chocolate bars are not health foods.
But please, please, please don’t drink Himalayan salt mixed with a glass of water each morning the way some health and lifestyle bloggers and salt companies urge you to. While that’s a great way to sell salt, “The American diet tends to provide significantly more sodium than is required,” McGrath says, adding that “excess sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure, which can eventually cause strokes and lead to heart and kidney failure.”
What about that stuff about pink salt helping you breathe better?
Don’t expect pink salt lamps or salt rooms to cure your asthma either. “In Eastern Europe and Russia, people have been descending into salt caves to treat respiratory diseases, but we don’t have very much rigorous data on it,” says Maureen George, an associate professor at Columbia University’s School of Nursing. “If the air contains microscopic salt crystals, that can cause a change in the mucus in the lungs and can cause coughing, which some find worsen their asthma, but some find it makes them feel better,” she says. Still, any results would be temporary.
There is one study, published in Pediatric Pulmonology in 2016, that found children’s asthma did improve directly after a “halotherapy” session, aka time spent in a salt room. However, George points out that the study only used children with asthma so moderate they didn’t need daily inhaler treatment, and that the results were measured only right after the session. “It’s a small signal that immediately after the artificial salt room therapy that kids in this trial had better quality of life scores and less airway twitchiness,” she says, but, “we don’t have any long-term, rigorously designed studies or large, randomized studies.”
Furthermore, to get the better-breathing benefits, you’d need the salt particles to be in the air—and a nightstand salt lamp definitely isn’t going to produce that result.
Still, if you want to go sit in a salt room to meditate, George isn’t going to stop you. “I’m a scientist, but I’m really into letting people do what works for them, and we know that mind-body interventions can be a powerful tool” she says. Just don’t stop using your asthma meds without consulting your physician.
Finally, the pink salt inhalers are likely useless for asthma treatment. “The device they’re using is not FDA-approved and looks like something that would only impact the upper respiratory tract. It’s what would land in your nose and mouth,” George explains. Getting medicine deep into your lungs—where it’s actually going to help you—is pretty tricky. “The tech in asthma inhalers is really complicated. It’s all about particle size and carriers.”
Anything else I need to know?
Most of these pink Himalayan salt remedies aren’t going to hurt you (minus the daily saltwater-chugging routine, that is not good). But overpaying for seasonings and snacks and shelling out $40 for a useless product smarts. And trust us, no matter what GOOP tells you, rubbing salt in the wound—even if it’s pink and (kinda) from the Himalayas—won’t help.
Oh yeah, and only kinda from the Himalayas. Banish those images of gorgeous pink salt mountain cliffs rising into the clouds in the world’s highest mountain range: Most pink Himalayan salt actually comes from a Pakistani government-owned mine that’s south of the famed mountains. The Khewra Salt Mine is now a tourist attraction, but its history is violent. During British colonial rule, the British forced locals to work in slave-like conditions in the mine. Even today, wages are low. Pakistani newspaper The Dawn reported in 2018 that a miner makes 350 Pakistani rupees, or about $2.50, for every ton of salt excavated. Think about that the next time you spend $5.99 for four ounces of the stuff on Amazon.
This article originally appeared on Tonic.