Buying snake oil in 2015 is surprisingly easy. A search for “snake oil” on Amazon yields 2,716 hits, many of them not liquid, but 16 oils sit under the “beauty” category alone. And that’s not counting all the non-medicinal variants, like the snake oil you can buy as a “gun lubricant.” (“Just a few drops of Genuine Snake-Oil-Prime and your bangstick will run like new,” reads the description.)
For research purposes, I chose a modestly priced option with a suitably mysterious label. This 1-ounce bottle of snake oil meant for the skin will set you back $8.75 and with expedited shipping, an order placed on a Friday afternoon lands the small container in your mailbox less than 48 hours later.
Labeled as a “skin emollient,” it smells a lot more fishy than you might imagine. On its Amazon page, the description is sparse, even though it’s in both English and Spanish:”This oil feels great on your skin. Use as a hydrating formula to soften your skin.” There are only four customer reviews, some of them clearly sarcastic (Yolo McSwaggins: “It has not only cleared up my acne, but it also cured my cancer and my doctor just told me that I am no longer HIV positive.”) What is it supposed to do exactly? And why is it so pungent?
When I looked at the ingredients list, it all made sense. There are just two components to the recipe: cod liver oil and mineral oil. No snakes. It is basically the perfect snake oil.
Snake oil has long been regarded, both literally and figuratively, as a product that promises the world but delivers nothing. If you’re getting sold snake oil, you’re getting fleeced by a huckster—whether that’s a quack doctor at a traveling carnival or a shady politician canvassing for votes.
But the story of snake oil, the actual substance, is a little more complicated—there are a few glimmers of truth amid all the trickery and swindles.
The American use of snake oil as a topical pain reliever most likely originates with Chinese immigrants who came to the United States during the 1860s to help build the Transcontinental Railway. According to NPR, “The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work. The story goes that the Chinese workers began sharing the oil with some American counterparts, who marveled at the effects.”
By the late 19th century, some enterprising Americans had gotten in on the snake oil selling biz, with one key difference: While the Chinese snake oil came from Chinese water snakes, the Stateside version was associated with rattlesnakes, Native Americans, and the West.
In the 1890s, a Rhode Island man named Clark Stanley began peddling his own Snake Oil Liniment. In his promotional material, Stanley, the self-dubbed “Rattlesnake King,” claimed to have learned “the secret of snake oil” from Hopi medicine men while hanging out in the wilds of Texas during the 1870s. He boasted that his oil was the “strongest and best liniment known for the cure of all pain and lameness.” Rheumatism, neuralgia, toothache, sprains, frostbite, and sore throats were among the many maladies Stanley’s snake oil claimed to relieve.
In the late 19th century, when heroin was sold as an over-the-counter cough suppressant, Snake Oil Liniment was one of a rash of “patent medicines”: the potions and pills, tonics and tinctures that, with their effusive ads, claimed to solve all your problems. During this era, there were no federal regulations governing such substances, meaning sellers could make any claim they desired without having to fuss over things like clinical trials or scientific validity.
Then came the United States government’s 1906 Federal Food and Drugs Act, introduced with the aim of preventing “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors.” The effects of this legislation, however, weren’t immediate. It took a decade before the jig was up for Stanley. In 1916, the Bureau of Chemistry found that the Rattlesnake King’s so-called snake oil consisted “principally of a light mineral oil (petroleum product) mixed with about one percent of fatty oil (probably beef fat),” accompanied by “possibly a trace of camphor and turpentine.” Stanley was fined $20 for his fraudulent advertising.
After the introduction of the Food and Drugs Act, some snake oil vendors took an even sneakier approach to marketing that managed to evade the government restrictions. In July 1918, a monthly bulletin from the Boston Health Department reported that dodgy medicine vendor Guy C. Worner was selling snake oil at a shop on Washington Street. “The premises were duly decorated with rattlesnake skins, cages of live snakes, and other curiosities supposedly from the West,” read the bulletin, which also noted that, when conducting business, Worner “appeared in the costume of a cowboy.”
The Health Department’s analysis of Worner’s not-so-snake-ish oil showed that it contained 75 percent petroleum lubricating oil and 25 percent eucalyptol, according to the bulletin. Worner escaped any false-advertising penalties by claiming that the rattlesnake imagery used in his store displays and print ads were intended merely to boost sales of the snake skins he peddled alongside his mystery miracle oil.
Despite the quackery and charlatanism associated with snake oil, it’s not always as blatantly ineffective as its reputation suggests—as long as the oil is extracted from the right kind of snake. The original Chinese version of snake oil does appear to have minor health benefits. Oil extracted from Chinese water snakes is rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory properties.
In a letter published in the Western Journal of Medicine in 1989, Dr. Richard Kunin wrote: “As a concentrated source of EPA, snake oil is a credible anti-inflammatory agent and might indeed confer therapeutic benefits. Since essential fatty acids are known to absorb transdermally, it is not far-fetched to think that inflamed skin and joints could benefit by the actual anti-inflammatory action of locally applied oil.”
And the benefits may extend further: a 2007 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology found that feeding the oil of Chinese water snakes to aged mice may improve their swimming endurance.
Even if the American products sold as rattlesnake oil did indeed contain rattlesnake oil, they would not have conferred the anti-inflammatory benefits of the Chinese version—Kunin analyzed the EPA content of oil from both red and black rattlesnakes and found that it was 0.6 and 4.1 percent EPAs respectively—as compared to the 19.6 percent of EPAs in Chinese snake oil.
So, what of the cod liver “snake oil” available on Amazon for the low low price of $8.75? Applying it topically likely won’t harm you—like Chinese water snake oil, cod liver oil is rich in EPAs. A 2000 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that cod liver oil ointment helps hasten the healing of wounds. But the main effect of rubbing this bargain snake oil on your body is rather more unpleasant. It will simply stink up the place, letting people know that your snake oil is a sham.