You may never have heard of diatomaceous earth before, but chances are you’ve consumed or used plenty of products that contained it. So what is diatomaceous earth?
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a natural product made up of fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms. Composed of the cell walls/shells of single cell diatoms, it easily crumbles to a fine powder. In fact, the composition of the diatom cell walls are biogenic silica.
What are some products that contain diatomaceous earth? Some common products that contain diatomaceous earth include dusts, powders (or a “powder duster”) and pressurized liquids that are used on the outside of buildings, on farms, in gardens, and in human and pet foods.
It usually comes in the form of a white powder and is also used in water filtering, food manufacturing, skin products and farming to naturally eliminate free radicals, viruses, insects, parasites and other harmful organisms by binding to them and drying them out. It also has the ability to improve the body’s use of calcium, improve bone mineralization, protect joints and fight effects of aging. And that’s not all.
6 Diatomaceous Earth Benefits
What are the health benefits of diatomaceous earth? These can include:
- improved digestion and more regular bowel movements
- better liver and colon functioning
- improved detoxification and removal of heavy metals
- stronger immune function and protection from illnesses
- a cleaner home, free from parasites, bed bugs and viruses
- healthier-looking skin, hair and nails
- stronger bones and protection from fractures or osteoporosis
- improved joint and ligament health
- improved energy
- for dogs and cats, cleaner skin and flea control
1. Detoxifies the Body
Diatomaceous earth — also known as diatomite — works like a natural detoxifying agent within the body, killing parasites and viruses that can contribute to illnesses while also helping to clean the blood. It’s also inexpensive, simple to use and much safer than many store-bought detox products or plans. Some of the benefits of using DE internally include reducing odors, helping to curb gas, cleansing the digestive tract, boosting liver function and absorbing harmful toxins within the blood.
How does DE work to help with detoxification? Silica works similarly to antioxidants found in high-antioxidant foods because it retains its traits as a stable particle even while continuously suspended in a liquid medium, allowing it to fight free radical damage. It’s broken down into a colloidal form, which acts like a detoxifier for the blood since it carries an electrical charge that attaches to free radicals and other harmful toxins. Silica particles can then neutralize the charge of free radicals and remove them from the body through sweat, urine and feces, which slows oxidative damage and has anti-aging effects.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that silica also helps eliminate heavy metals from the body, such as aluminum, making it perfect for a heavy metal detox. In studies, it has been shown to have a high-aluminum-affinity and reduces aluminum availability from the human gastrointestinal tract. (1)
2. Helps Purify Water
Diatomaceous earth is used in many filtration products, including the trademarked brand name Celite, because its chemical composition makes it a great filtration aid. It’s able to filter very fine particles that otherwise pass through or clog filter papers.
This makes it a common product used in water filters to help prevent tap water toxicity and also purification practices for fish tanks. Additionally, it’s also important for manufacturing beer and wine, syrups, sugar, and honey without removing or altering their color, taste or nutritional properties.
A study published in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiologyfound that diatomaceous earth helps kill viruses and purify drinking water. Viruses have been found to be dangerous and abundant in certain sources of drinking water, raising the risk for viral infections and having a significant impact on bacteria and algae populations in the ecosystem. (2)
Researchers tested the effects of a filter containing DE on tap water that was contaminated with heavy metals and various viral strains. The results of the study showed that DE helped absorb up to 80 percent of the viruses present, including poliovirus 1, echovirus 5 and coxsackievirus B5, which were all present in tap water even after filtration. (3)
3. Fights Parasites
A study published in the Oxford Journal of Poultry Science found that DE has the potential to be an effective treatment to help control internal parasites. Interestingly enough, this was observed in hens that produce organically raised, free-range eggs. Giving two breeds of commercial egg-laying hens DE improved production of their eggs and egg quality compared to control groups, effectively working as a parasite cleanse in the process. (4)
The two groups of hens used in the study were found to differ in their resistance to internal parasitic infections, which was observed by examining their gastrointestinal tracts. The hens fed DE had significantly lower incidences of infections, including fewer Capillaria FEC, slightly lower Eimeria FEC, fewer birds infected with Heterakis and significantly lower Heterakis worm infections. Those fed DE were also significantly heavier in weight, laid more eggs and consumed more feed than hens fed the control diet, plus their eggs had larger yolks and therefore were more concentrated with nutrients.
4. Kills Insects and Other Harmful Substances in Your Home
In the U.S., DE is classified under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act as a safe substance for household use. How does diatomaceous earth work to. get rid of insects? It’s a natural insecticide, since it absorbs lipids from the waxy outer layer of insects’ exoskeletons, which causes them to dehydrate and die of water deficiency. This is why it’s useful in food preservation, as a natural home deodorizer and cleanser, and for helping to treat livestock suffering from parasites.
Using diatomaceous earth can help eliminate bed bug, house dust mites, cockroach, ants (such as ant hills) and flea infestations within your home without the use for harsh chemicals. According to the website for Pest Control Technologies, silica gels have been used by the pest control industry for more than a half century since they safely produce an electrostatic charge that helps them adhere to insects crawling over treated surfaces.
Silica gel and diatomaceous earth have been found in studies to kill insects by removing a portion of the razor-thin, waxy outer coating that helps an insect conserve moisture, which allows them to work better than other products that relay on abrasion or poisoning. (5)
5. Improves Joint, Bones and Ligaments Health
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging stated that dietary silicon is beneficial to bone and connective tissue and helps prevent low bone mass (osteoporosis), which is considered “a silent epidemic of the 21st century.” Silica within DE helps with normal bone metabolism and joint formation, with evidence over the past 30 years suggesting there’s a positive association between dietary silicon intake and better bone mineral density. (6) Thus, DE makes a great addition to any osteoporosis diet and treatment plan.
A number of possible mechanisms for how this works have been suggested, including the possibility that silicon helps with synthesis of collagen (used to form joints, the lining of the digestive tract and connective tissue) and within the mineralization of bones. While more research is still needed, it appears that silica supplementation can be used to help support normal metabolic processes, preserve joint health and prevent bone disorders.
6. Helps Clean and Protect Skin, Nails and Teeth
Since it has natural abrasive qualities and kills parasites, DE is used in many toothpastes, skin exfoliators, polishes and skin scrubs. Just like other beneficial clays — like bentonite clay — it dries out harmful toxins and leaves behind clean, smoothed skin with little to side effects. It also seems to have anti-aging effects by helping with the use of calcium in forming strong bones, nails and teeth. (7, 8)
How to Use Diatomaceous Earth
You may have wondered, “Is diatomaceous earth toxic to humans?” Diatomaceous earth is safe for humans and animals to consume and also beneficial for skin, so it’s used both inside and outside the body. The Food and Drug Administration lists food grade diatomaceous earth as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” which means it’s legally allowed to be added to many different types of foods, beverages and supplements. (9) Small amounts of silica are normally present in all body tissues and usually found in urine, too, so it’s well-tolerated and not known to cause many side effects. (10)
What is diatomaceous earth used for? As mentioned previously, common products that contain diatomaceous earth include dusts, powders, “powder dusters” and pressurized liquids that are used on the outside of buildings, on farms, in gardens, and in human and pet foods.
In addition, today, there are over 150 pesticide-related products registered for use both indoors and outdoors that contain DE. There are also thousands of non-pesticide, food grade diatomaceous earth products that are used on the skin, in food, and in supplements or medications.
Some of the most popular diatomaceous earth uses include:
- pet nutrition products
- products used on dogs and cats to kill fleas
- bed bug-killing treatments
- sprays and products used for insect control, including cockroaches, crickets, fleas, ticks, spiders
- rodent sprays
- water filters
- skin care products
- foods and beverages, such as in beer and wine
- anti-caking and clarifying ingredients used in food manufacturing
- supplements and medicines
- rubbers and paints used in construction
- abrasive products used as defoliators and for cleaning
Diatomaceous earth comes in several forms:
- granulated diatomaceous earth, a raw material made from crushing silica that’s usually available as a powder and safe for human consumption (to be food-grade, it must contain less than 1 percent crystalline silica)
- milled or micronized diatomaceous earth, a very fine form used in pesticides and insecticides
- calcined diatomaceous earth, a heat-treated and activated form used in water filtering and explosives
You can purchase food-grade diatomaceous earth in some health food stores or online.
Here are the recommended steps for safely using DE as a detoxification agent and to protect bones and joints:
- Take about one teaspoon of food-grade diatomaceous earth with water once a day. It’s best used on an empty stomach at least one hour before or two hours after eating.
- Drink an additional cup of water after each dose of DE to improve its effects. In general, make sure to consume plenty of water with DE and stay hydrated.
- Increase your dosage slowly over several weeks, working your way up from one teaspoon to two teaspoons daily, or one tablespoon max. Split the dosage into two parts taken in the morning and one at night.
- Take DE 10 days on and 10 days off for 90 days to effectively and safely detox. Another strategy is to take it daily for a few weeks at a time as you track symptoms, stopping and starting again throughout the year. It’s safest when you give your body breaks and don’t use it continuously for very long periods of time.
- As a note of caution, initially you might notice some mild side effects that can develop as your gut environment changes, yeast dies off and your body releases stored toxins. This can include mild headaches, fatigue and flu-like symptoms, which should diminish within a couple weeks.
Wondering what DE taste like? It’s basically tasteless and has a rough, gritty texture. You can take it with water or mix it into another liquid if you prefer, such as juice, yogurt or a smoothie. It won’t dissolve when mixed into water, so it’s normal to see some residue. You can stir vigorously before consumption to break it up, but it’s still going to leave behind some chalkiness and a gritty texture, which is why disguising it is a good idea.
How do you apply diatomaceous earth in other ways? Here’s how to use diatomaceous earth in your home:
- Step 1: Brush and vacuum carpets or any area where you think bugs, insects or fleas could be lurking. This will aggravate them and get them to move, which allows DE to work better. (11)
- Step 2: Apply diatomaceous earth powder where needed in your home, yard, your carpets, car, etc. Rub the powder into the carpets with a broom. Use enough to finely cover the surface but not too much that it’s easy to breathe in a lot.
- Step 3: Let the powder sit for about four to 12 hours before vacuuming. It’s recommended that you repeat this process once a week for a total of three to four weeks.
How Diatomaceous Earth Works
DE goes by many names other than diatomaceous earth, including: dinosaur dust, miracle mineral, fossil shell and ancient treasure. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, diatoms found in DE are actually skeletons that are made up of silica, a very common type of matter found in nature that makes up about 26 percent of the earth’s crust. There are various types of natural silica, many of which you probably recognize, including: sand, emerald, quartz, feldspar, mica, clay, asbestos and glass. (12)
Diatomaceous earth is available in two different grades: food grade (meant to taken internally by humans) and non-food grade (used in industrial practices). (13) Due to its natural detoxifying, liver-cleansing, antiviral and anti-parasitic effects, DE has been used in household, beauty, food and pesticide products made for killing or reducing toxins, insects, rodents and bugs since the 1960s. The substances used to make diatomaceous earth are safe and taken directly from the sea, since diatom silica deposits accumulate over time in the sediment of rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.
Although it’s able to kill and ward off viruses, parasites, bugs and rodents, diatomaceous earth is not poisonous. The Diatomaceous Earth website states that DE is one of the “cheapest and most versatile health products on the market,” mostly because silicon used to make DE is the second most abundant element in soil. (14)
Silica used to make diatomaceous earth is a key common component of the earth’s natural rock, sands and clays. Some DE is even found in humans and animals within their skeletons, since it helps form bone. Silica is an important component of human ligaments, cartilage and musculature and is also abundant in plants since it facilitates their growth and development. Studies have shown that it’s an essential mineral for the body to build strong bones, hair, nails and teeth and needed to carry calcium into various parts of the body. (15)
According to research published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, many forms of silica exist in nature, and compelling data supports myriad beneficial effects of consuming more silica within water. Orthosilicic acid is the form of silicon predominantly absorbed by humans and found in numerous tissues, including nails, bones, tendons, the aorta, the liver and the kidneys. (16) Compelling evidence exists that suggests silica is essential for health and has strong anti-aging effects. Deficiencies in silica can contribute to:
- abnormal growth
- deformities in skull and peripheral bones
- joint pain caused from poorly formed joints and reduced contents of cartilage and collagen
- disruption of mineral balance
- damage to the femur and vertebrae
How exactly does DE help improve health and kill parasites or viruses?
While silica itself is a natural substance found in seawater, silicon dioxide(used to make DE) is not. It’s created chemically by adding oxygen and water to pure silica. Silicon dioxide comes in two forms: crystalline and amorphous silica. Amorphous is the type used in the majority of diatomaceous earth products.
DE’s chemical composition allows it to stand up well to both water and sunlight without becoming altered or evaporated, which makes it useful in a variety of different liquid and solid products. It’s a dry substance that’s also abrasive and has sharp edges. It works by interacting with special oils and fats found within insects and other organisms, causing the cuticle of the organism’s skeleton to dry up so it dies.
You don’t actually have to eat DE to experience its effects, and neither do rodents or bugs. Because it’s a dry dust or powder, it can travel through the air, so exposure can happen when the dust is either breathed in, comes into contact with the skin, gets inside the eyes or is eaten.
Once it enters the body, only a very small amount is actually absorbed while the rest is quickly excreted through the lungs and urine. It doesn’t tend to linger in the body for very long, although some studies have found that crystalline diatomaceous (the type of silicon that’s very small) can accumulate in small amounts in the lung tissue and lymph nodes. While it gets flushed from the body, it lowers the presence of heavy metals and other toxins that can contribute to allergies, infections, sluggish digestion and more.
When it comes to the role of silica, the body uses this to store minerals such as calcium in joints, organs and other soft tissues. This can help prevent health problems due to calcium deficiency, including bone spurs, arthritis, osteoporosis, weak hair and brittle nails. (17)
Are There Any Side Effects of Diatomaceous Earth?
Although it’s generally recognized as safe to use on the body or to consume, some people react to DE by experiencing irritation and other side effects. It’s possible for diatomaceous earth to irritate the nose and nasal passages when you breathe it in, or if consumed in large amounts, it can contribute to coughs and shortness of breath.
It also has the potential to irritate the skin and cause some mild irritation and dryness. If you have sensitive skin, eyes or nasal passages, it’s a good idea to monitor your symptoms and watch out for any strong reactions. It’s also recommended that you keep DE away from babies and small children who might be more sensitive to DE’s effects and can react to it by experiencing irritations.
As far as long-term exposure goes, in animal studies generally no health effects have been observed even after applying diatomaceous earth to animals’ skin five times per week for several weeks. In a rat study, researchers fed rats high doses of diatomaceous earth for six months and found no evidence of reproductive or developmental effects.
That being said, the National Pesticide Information Center states that there’s some evidence that inhaling a very small amount of crystalline silicon over time (the kind used in small quantities in some types of diatomaceous earth, especially pesticides) might contribute to silicosis, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory problems in a small percentage of cases. However, the risk seems low considering the vast majority of diatomaceous earth used in products for human consumption is amorphous, not crystalline.
Diatomaceous Earth’s Impact on the Environment
Wondering if DE can harm animals or contribute to environmental pollution? Evidence shows this is very unlikely and that diatomaceous earth is actually nontoxic to mammals, fish and aquatic invertebrates.
It’s commonly encountered by birds and other wildlife in nature but has been found to be harmless to birds, fish or other wildlife in numerous studies. In fact, silica is naturally plentiful in the ocean, and seawater contains vast amounts of diatomaceous earth. The skeletons of many types of sea life and marine organisms are actually made using silica, and therefore it seems to pose no major risks to most species.
As far as plants go, DE can actually be beneficial since it’s used as a growing medium in potted plants. It’s sold as natural soil additive and helps soil retain water and nutrients, while allowing for more oxygen circulation and killing off parasites. It also helps preserve foods naturally (such as grains or legumes, which can grow mold) and helps replenish soil so more plants and food can be grown for livestock and human consumption.
Diatomaceous Earth Takeaways
- Some common products that contain diatomaceous earth include dusts, powders and pressurized liquids that are used on the outside of buildings, on farms, in gardens, and in human and pet foods.
- Diatomaceous earth benefits include detoxifying the body; purifying water; parasite control; killing insects and other harmful substances in your home; improving joint, bone and ligament health; and cleaning and protecting skin, nails and teeth.
- Today, there are over 150 pesticide-related products registered for use both indoors and outdoors that contain DE. There are also thousands of non-pesticide, food grade diatomaceous earth products that are used on the skin, in food, and in supplements or medications. Some of the most popular diatomaceous earth uses include: pet nutrition products, products used on dogs and cats to kill flees, bed bug-killing treatments, sprays and products used to kill bugs, rodent sprays, water filters, skin care products, toothpastes, foods and beverages, anti-caking and clarifying ingredients used in food manufacturing, supplements and medicines, rubbers and paints used in construction, and abrasive products used as defoliators and for cleaning.
- Diatomaceous earth is available in two different grades: food grade (meant to taken internally by humans) and non-food grade (used in industrial practices).
- Diatomaceous earth comes in several forms, such as: granulated diatomaceous earth, a raw material made from crushing silica that’s usually available as a powder and safe for human consumption; milled or micronized diatomaceous earth, a very fine form used in pesticides and insecticides; calcined diatomaceous earth, a heat-treated and activated form used in water filtering and explosives.
Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DMN, CNS, " 6 Proven Diatomaceous Earth Uses and Benefits" Dr. Ax Food is Medicine, November 2,2018.