If you're having trouble sleeping and feeling jittery, you probably don't want to consume a bunch of coffee—that's just common sense. And if you're going to pop a pain reliever for a headache, diluting it so much that it's literally undetectable by any scientific instrument probably doesn't seem like the best route either.
But these two concepts make up the basic tenets of homeopathy, something many casual consumers of homeopathic products probably don't realize. That's why the Federal Trade Commission now requires many of these products to state on the label that there's no scientific evidence they actually do anything. But will these new requirements improve consumer literacy, or just make people even more confused?
Homeopathy was concocted in the late 1700s and is based on two core beliefs. The first is that "like cures like," or a substance that induces a certain reaction in healthy adults—such as caffeine waking you up—will induce the opposite effect in an adult suffering from those symptoms—such as someone with insomnia. That's why many homeopathic "remedies" for insomnia include coffee plant extracts. But that's a bit irrelevant, because the second belief—that the more you dilute a substance, the more powerful it becomes—means that most homeopathic products are little more than sugar pills and water.
Proponents will argue that just because you can't explain something, or prove it works, doesn't it mean it's useless, but the whole industry is largely not accepted in medical science. Even so, the average consumer might not be aware of this, or may be conflating homeopathy with herbal remedies—which, in some cases, have been shown to be effective.
Recognizing the possibility for confusion, the FTC released new guidelines recently for over-the-counter homeopathic "remedies" for self-limiting disease conditions—that's anything that resolves itself over time and which you can self-diagnose, like a headache, nausea, or a cold. According to the new guidelines, unless a product has "competent and reliable scientific evidence" that it provides the effects stated on the label, the manufacturer shouldn't make those claims.
However, if the homeopathic company does want to make claims like "temporarily relieves cold symptoms" on the label, the FTC now requires that it also includes a disclaimer stating "there is no scientific evidence that the product works" and that "the product's claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts."
The FTC noted that this is intended to give consumers clear, non-deceptive information about what they're buying, but it could just lead to more confusion. How can a product that says it will relieve your runny nose also say, right below, that there's no scientific evidence it works? The FTC acknowledged this in the new regulations and recommended that manufacturers run consumer surveys to make sure the labels are not too confusing. Even if it's clear, this disclaimer might not convince consumers to be more discerning—research has shown that even providing evidence a remedy doesn't work doesn't always change consumer behavior.
For these kinds of over-the-counter products, the risk is relatively low—if you want to take a sugar pill to treat your headache, that's your call. But there are times when homeopathic remedies can be dangerous, which is why the FTC and other regulators ought to start cracking down a little more to make sure consumers know what they're getting into, and what evidence there is backing it up.