April 11, 2008 -- Did you know that your body may be crawling with poisons and toxins? Heavy metals like arsenic and mercury? Parasites, metabolic wastes, even cellulite? Maybe that's why you're tired or stressed out or your back hurts. Well, someone has a cure for you.
"Kinoki foot pads, the incredible detox system that naturally captures toxins from your body while you sleep!" That's what the TV ads blare, and they're persuasive. After all, we've been told that poisons are everywhere.
"Are you poisoning yourself with unavoidable toxins from the food, water and air we breathe?" the spokeswoman asks. The foot pads, they say, will drain toxins right out of you. "Kinoki foot pads collect heavy metals, metabolic wastes, toxins, parasites, cellulite and more, giving you back your vitality and health."
How do they work? The pad is an adhesive patch with a small bag of ingredients that include things like wood vinegar. You apply this to your foot like a Band-Aid. Supposedly, the pad then drains the toxins out while you sleep.
The "after" pad shown in the ad is covered with what you'd expect toxins to look like -- brown, muddy, kind of a mini-Superfund site. But don't despair.
"Use a fresh pad each night until the pad becomes lighter and lighter," the ads claim. It's supposed to get lighter because after several days' use, you have fewer toxins in your body.
The ads boast that an "independent study proves Kinoki foot pads absorb toxic materials from your body. Isn't that amazing?"
Yes, and maybe that's why the Internet is buzzing about Kinoki, with bloggers wondering if they really work. At TheMockDock.com (their motto: "Unloading a fresh load of scoff, daily!") a blogger videotaped her test of Kinoki pads.
On the first night, she applied a pad to her foot, "and went to bed hoping for the best, wanting to see what happens in the morning and whether or not the pad was going to be as disgusting as the commercial promised and sure enough when I turned on the light and took this pad off… it was every bit as heinous as the commercials promised."
'Do They Work or Don't They'?
We were curious too, so we ordered some Kinoki pads and similar ones made by Avon called "detoxifying patches," and ran an ad asking for people who wanted to try them. We put together a group of people who had heard of detox foot pads -- some had even tried them -- and were willing to participate.
Lou Gregory had a professional interest in the pads. "I'm a chiropractor, and I have patients that ask me all the time about them," he said. "So I wanted to know, do they work or don't they?"
Veronica James is an actress who'd tried Kinoki pads before and hoped they would boost her immune system. Veronica thought the pads might have prevented a cold.
"I have not had a cold in a few months now, which is good, but I don't know if it's because I'm taking better vitamins or because of this."
After trying the Avon pads, Kelly Dye, an administrative assistant, thought maybe she had more energy.
"I actually woke up and I have energy 'cause usually I wake up and I snooze like 10 times and I thought, OK, maybe this will be good for me," she said. "I can get to work earlier … but no."
Most of our volunteers, like boxing trainer Ricky Ray Taylor, observed no benefits.
"I'm on a relentless pursuit for more energy," he said. "I got nothin'."
Katie Sweeney, who used Avon pads on both feet for three days, said, "I had a headache and I felt dehydrated."
The Placebo Effect
But what about all of those toxins that were supposedly pulled out of their feet? The ad promised, "Just like a tree draws energy in and toxins down its trunk,Kinoki foot pads work the same way."
Dr. George Friedman-Jimenez, the director of the Bellevue / New York University Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic in New York City, said "I don't think that they act by removing toxins from the body."
A specialist in environmental medicine, Friedman-Jiminez fears that sick people will put off getting real treatment because they think detox pads will work.
I asked Friedman-Jiminez if it's possible that the placebo effect caused people to think that they felt better after wearing the pads overnight.
"I think what we're seeing with treatments like Kinoki footpads is that people are expecting them to help, and expecting to feel better, and some people feel better just by chance, and some people feel better because of the expectation," he said. "The placebo effect contributes to the improvement in the symptoms."
Avon doesn't make the same extreme claims as Kinoki, but it does call its product "detoxifying patches," containing "ingredients known for their detoxifying properties."
"The idea that they're drawing toxins through the skin out of the body in any significant amount, I think is just wrong," said Friedman-Jimenez.
He said you cannot pull toxins out of the body through the feet -- "not in any significant amount."
Our volunteers also found that their pads didn't get lighter with repeated use like the ads promised. "They just stayed dark every day," said James.
The Smell and the Science
And one feature of the pads that the ads don't tell you about but that our testers complained about was the smell.
"It smelled like a barbecue pit when I woke up," said Dye.
Grad school student Sara Mascola said, "It smells like bacon and then it leaves this film on your foot."
J Vanburen, a voiceover artist, said the pad smelled even worse than that. "Eeew. No, it didn't smell like any bacon I've ever smelled. … I want to know what they found in the pad."
The Kinoki ads' claim that we're brimming with things like heavy metals, toxins and parasites scares people. "20/20" asked NMS Labs, a national laboratory in Willow Grove, Pa., that performs toxicology testing, to analyze the used Kinoki and Avon pads from eight of our group to see what we could find on the pads.
The lab tested for a lot of things, including heavy metals like arsenic and mercury and 23 solvents, including benzene, tolulene and styrene and found none of these on the used pads.
"I feel like it's a scam," said Sweeney. "It's just the moisture in your feet that are darkening the pad."
Bingo. There's no evidence that it's toxins. When I dropped distilled water on the pad, it turns dark in seconds.
I wish TV and radio stations would be more responsible about running these kinds of ads. Alan Handleman, a North Carolina radio host, says that when Kinoki proposed advertising on his program, he asked for samples of the pads. He eventually decided the company seemed "sleazy" and he turned the money down. But that's unusual, I fear. Many in the media just take the money.
"I think it's a scam, and I think they purposely put it on late at night for drunk, vulnerable people," said Dye. " You won't even remember you ordered it until it comes in the mail."
Now of course our informal study was not definitive. In one later test we did found a trace of lead on five pads but Friedman-Jimenez believes it didn't come from people.
"It could've been in the packaging of the pad, it could've been a contamination from dust on the floors. Many apartments that have lead paint have trace amounts of lead in the dust and if someone is walking around barefoot," the doctor said, it could have gotten on our testers' feet. "But the lead is not toxin that's being drawn from the person's body."
We asked Avon and Kinoki for tests that would show that their products really work, but they offered no valid scientific studies to back up their detoxification claims. Nor would either company agree to a TV interview.
I think it's revealing that Kinoki's parent company, Xacta 3000 of Lakewood, N.J., also sells the Wrinkle Terminator, which makes wrinkles "disappear."
Does this make you mad?
Thirty years ago, when I began consumer reporting, such scams used to enrage me.
I'd go to politicians demanding to know why they didn't take action to protect consumers. I'd go to lawyers asking why they didn't sue the cheaters out of business and get compensation for victims.
Now I know better.
I've learned that governments' attempts to stifle consumer fraud usually lead to more paperwork, higher taxes, barriers to entry for new business, and the frauds continue anyway. Or new versions of them did.
The lawyers' suing led to a few consumers getting some compensation, but higher costs for all consumers, more paperwork to fill out, long delays for everything, and fewer choices.
Today I think it's sad, but there will always be consumer scams; some people will endlessly fall for pitches for breast and penis enlargers, hair growers, "natural" remedies and so on. It's the media's job to report on them to warn you, but to not call for government or legal intervention. Such intervention almost always makes things worse.
After all, the losses are usually not that severe. Eventually the public wises up, and the scam fades away. I assume that will happen with detox foot pads.
The money must pour in, after all, the ads keep running, telling us "Don't delay, order Kinoki foot pads today!"
But our blogger won't do that again. After six nights trying the Kinoki pads, she gave up.
"Did I feel better? No. Did I sleep better? Not really. Did I have more energy? No. The only thing I felt was hostility toward these pads. The bed smelled, my hands smelled after using them… So I'm left feeling duped by Mr. Kinoki."
ABC News Producer Frank Mastropolo contributed to this report.