What Is Diatomaceous Earth?
Diatomaceous earth (DE), also called diatomite, is essentially a type of sand made up of the remains of fossilized algae. It's found in streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans around the world.
The algae, tiny water organisms called diatoms, have skeletons made of silicon dioxide (silica). Silica is a common part of natural rock, sand, and clay, making up 27.7% of the Earth's crust by weight. Diatomaceous earth is more than 80% silica and also contains trace amounts of sodium, magnesium, and iron.
What is diatomaceous earth used for?
Diatomaceous earth is mainly known as a pesticide and insecticide. The first pesticide products containing diatomaceous earth were registered in 1960. Today, diatomaceous earth products are registered for use to prevent or get rid of pests such as fleas, bedbugs, cockroaches, ticks, spiders, and crickets.
It's also used in industry as an abrasive and to help with filtering. It's an ingredient in many products, including cat litter, toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, and insulation.
Due to its silica content, it's also sold as a dietary supplement. But there's little scientific evidence of any health benefits. It's not clear whether people need silica in their diets or what role it plays, though it's found naturally in plant-based foods such as vegetables, whole grains, bananas, and dried fruits.
Types of diatomaceous earth
In the U.S., two main grades of diatomaceous earth are sold:
- Food-grade diatomaceous earth, also known as freshwater diatomaceous earth, is mined from dry lake beds. It's made up of very small particles. This type is used as an insecticide, added to animal feed to prevent caking, and sometimes marketed for humans to add to their diets.
- Filter-grade diatomaceous earth, or saltwater diatomaceous earth, comes from ocean sources. This type is used in pools and other filters. It isn't safe to use as an insecticide, or for people or animals to eat. It's high in crystalline silica, a substance known to be harmful to humans, and it can be especially dangerous if you breathe it in.
Health Benefits of Diatomaceous Earth
Many merchants have begun selling food-grade diatomaceous earth as a dietary supplement. In general, any food-grade diatomaceous earth health benefits are unproven. Still, you may see claims about these benefits on websites that market vitamins and supplements:
These claims seem to be mostly based on an 8-week study, involving 19 people, which found diatomaceous earth reduced blood cholesterol and boosted fat (lipid) metabolism. Four weeks after the study participants stopped taking diatomaceous earth, their total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood) remained low.
Managing cholesterol levels is important because it decreases your risk for several health conditions, including heart disease. But we need much more research to confirm these findings, including studies that compare people who take diatomaceous earth with others given a placebo (a substitute with no active ingredients).
Because your bones contain silica, some believe that supplementing your diet with it could help with bone health. One review study did find a link between the dietary intake of silicon and bone growth and repair. But many scientists say there's not much evidence that silica in our diets plays a role in how healthy your bones are.
While your body can get silica from foods, it's not clear how much you can absorb from diatomaceous earth. It's thought to pass through your digestive system quickly, with most excreted as waste.
Some marketers say that diatomaceous earth can help remove toxins from the body. These “diatomaceous earth detox” claims are based on its ability to remove heavy metals from water when used as a filter.
But there's no evidence that it acts the same way on your digestive system. In truth, there's no need to “cleanse” your body of toxins. Your liver, kidneys, and digestive system do that for you every day.
Improving the health of skin, nails, hair and teeth
Diatomaceous earth is an effective ingredient in personal-care products such as exfoliating cleansers, foundation makeup, and toothpaste. These products make use of its abrasive (scrubbing) qualities, which help absorb oil. Its chalky texture helps provide coverage in makeup.
Because silica is found naturally in hair, teeth, skin, and nails, some believe that adding it to your diet may help improve your health. But there's little research to back this up. And it's not clear whether you can absorb meaningful amounts of silica from diatomaceous earth.
Other potential benefits
You may also see claims that diatomaceous earth helps with:
- Treatment of constipation
- Weight loss
- Joint and ligament health
- Fighting parasites
We need much more research into whether any of these benefits are real.
Some farmers and ranchers believe that adding diatomaceous earth to livestock feed helps kill parasites. But there's no scientific proof that this works. Diatomaceous earth has not been shown to be effective for human parasites, either. If you think you may have intestinal parasites, see a doctor to get tested.
Diatomaceous Earth Side Effects
It's thought to be safe to swallow small amounts of food-grade diatomaceous earth. In fact, your body doesn't absorb very much of it. But we don't have much research on this. And because the FDA doesn't regulate dietary supplements, there's no way to know whether diatomaceous earth you buy for this purpose is safe or effective.
If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before adding any type of supplement to your diet.
Some people who use diatomaceous earth for a detox or cleanse have reported headaches or flu-like symptoms. If you notice symptoms after taking diatomaceous earth or any other supplement, tell your doctor.
If you inhale diatomaceous earth, it may irritate your nasal passages. If you breathe in a lot of it, it can cause coughing and/or shortness of breath.
When it gets on your skin, it can cause dryness and irritation. It can also irritate your eyes if it gets into them.
Be extra careful around filter-grade diatomaceous earth. Inhaled crystalline silica particles can build up in your lungs and lymph nodes. Long-term inhalation of diatomaceous earth has been linked to several health conditions, including lung cancer, silicosis, and other respiratory diseases.
Amounts and Dosage
Because there's been very little research into diatomaceous earth as a health supplement, there's not enough scientific information to determine the right dosage or portion size. In a study that looked at its effect on cholesterol, 19 participants took 250 milligrams of diatomaceous earth three times a day for 8 weeks.
No recommended daily allowance has been established for silica, the main ingredient in diatomaceous earth.
Use diatomaceous earth at your own risk, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about supplements that might better suit your needs.
Other Uses of Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous earth is well known as a nonpoisonous insecticide.
Bugs don't have to eat diatomaceous earth for it to work. Instead, it dries out their bodies by absorbing the oils and fats after they come into contact with it. It has sharp, abrasive edges, which helps it work faster. It keeps working as long as it stays dry and isn't disturbed. It works best on insects with exoskeletons, such as fleas, ants, roaches, and bedbugs. It's not effective on rats or mice.
Follow the package instructions carefully when using diatomaceous earth as a pesticide. Avoid inhaling it, and keep children and pets away from it.
Diatomaceous earth is a type of sand best known as a nonpoisonous insecticide. Some people use the food-grade type as a dietary supplement, but there's little scientific evidence that it provides any health benefits. It's best to talk to your doctor before taking any health supplement.
Diatomaceous Earth FAQs
What kind of bugs does diatomaceous earth get rid of?
You can buy diatomaceous earth products for use against ants, bedbugs, crickets, fleas, roaches, fleas, ticks, spiders, and more. It works best on insects with hard exoskeletons. Take care when using it in the garden, as it can also kill beneficial bugs such as pollinators. To minimize this, apply the powder at night and use only small amounts.
How safe is diatomaceous earth for humans?
The FDA says it's OK to consume diatomaceous earth in low concentrations as “an indirect food additive” (a substance that gets into foods in small amounts through packaging, storing, or handling). But there's no recommended safe dosage or portion size. You might come into contact with stronger versions when you use it as an insecticide, so it's important to take precautions to avoid inhaling it or touching it.
Can I sprinkle diatomaceous earth in my house?
Diatomaceous earth labeled as a pesticide is considered safe for indoor use when used as directed. But it can cause side effects if you inhale it, touch it, or get it in your eyes. Look for packages with an Environmental Protection Act (EPA) registration number. Carefully follow the package instructions, and:
- Wear a dust mask, long sleeves and long pants, and eye protection while you apply it
- Keep kids and pets away
- Don't apply next to vents
- Avoid using fans or vacuums in the area