Articles from July 2012

What Health Products are Worth Buying? An Interview with the SkepDoc


Harriet A. Hall, MD, know as the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and former Air Force flight surgeon who writes about medicine, quackery, and critical thinking for Skeptic Magazine and the Science-Based Medicine blog, which she co-founded. I thought she’d be a great person to ask about the value of health supplements and beauty products, since I’m always trying to get everyone to buy less crap!

1. What cold medications, if any, are worth buying? Other than zinc supplements, I haven’t seen anything that has research behind it that shows it lessens the length of a cold.

In my opinion, there are no cold medicines worth buying. A cold lasts seven days if you treat it and a week if you don’t. There are comfort measures that might make you feel a little better, like decongestants or salt water nasal irrigation or a hot toddy or Tylenol or chicken soup. But no medicines significantly affect the course of the cold. Colds are best treated with “tincture of time.” I like to reframe the idea of a cold as a good excuse for a mini-vacation. You can rest, take naps, put your responsibilities on hold, and pamper yourself.

2. What are the pros and cons of vitamin and mineral supplements? Does the average person need them, or should you only take them when you have a diagnosed deficiency?

There was a good review of vitamin supplements in The Medical Letter. They said “supplements are necessary to assure adequate intake of folic acid in young women and possibly of vitamins D and B12 in the elderly. There is no convincing evidence that taking supplements of vitamin C prevents any disease except scurvy. Women should not take vitamin A supplements during pregnancy or after menopause. No one should take high dose beta carotene supplements. A balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables may be safer than taking vitamin supplements. No biologically active substance taken for a long term can be assumed to be free of risk.”

The average healthy person does not need vitamin or mineral supplements, and taking them only results in expensive urine. Multivitamins are not indicated. Specific supplements may be indicated for specific reasons: your doctor will let you know if you need them.

3. What trendy health supplements are actually worth it? What about probiotics?

No trendy supplements are worth it. If they had been tested and proven to be safe and effective, they would not be trendy supplements but would be FDA approved as prescription or over-the-counter drugs. There are some preliminary studies showing benefits for probiotics in specific medical conditions, but the sales hype goes far beyond the evidence. My digestive system can regulate itself quite well without the help of Activia, thank you very much!

4. Do any weight loss supplements actually work?

The ads that say “eat all you want and still lose weight” are lying. Stimulants can increase metabolism and might make a small contribution to weight loss, but ephedra is off the market and you can get more health benefits from coffee than from caffeine in pills. Weight loss supplements can act as a placebo aid to motivation, but they don’t have any objective effects. The most effective aid to weight loss is to keep a food diary and systematically reduce your calorie intake. No cost involved except the cost of paper, and you’ll save money by buying less food.

5. What’s your take on traditional Chinese medicine? Has any of that stuff been subject to thorough enough testing to know if it works?

Most Chinese herbs have not been adequately tested. Some of them have been shown to work but have not been tested for safety as rigorously as prescription drugs. In general, the mixture of ingredients in the herb works no better than a purified active ingredient, and some of the other plant compounds might be counterproductive.  My biggest concern about Chinese herbal medicines is a lack of quality control. Products on sale have been found to contain toxins, carcinogens, insect parts, etc. and the dosage listed on the label may not reflect what you are actually getting.

6. Are any anti-aging products effective?

“Anti-aging” creams are not anti-aging. They do nothing but temporarily improve the appearance of the skin. Expensive moisturizers are no more effective than greasing the skin with Crisco; they’re just more aesthetically acceptable.

Thanks SkepDoc! With the money you’re going to save on these unnecessary products, you can go out and buy yourself some delicious healthy food, or a slightly used compostable hat. Have a great day!

Interview with Garage Sale Gal Lynda Hammond

Garage sale expert Lynda Hammond writes a weekly column at the Arizona Republic on garage sales, maintains a web site on the subject, and has even written a book about it. She graciously agreed to a brief phone interview with me so I could pick her brain!

1. What originally got you interested in yard sales?

My sister-in-law and her mother took me garage sale-ing for this first time ever in Kansas in the early nineties. They had to drag me along because I was a garage sale snob. I thought: ‘why would I want to buy used crap from someone’s house?’ When I got there, I was really shocked. I couldn’t believe some of the things for sale. Cool-looking antiques, things you simply can’t buy in a store anymore. The thing I walked away with was an old copper boiler. I remember the man kept talking about price, and I finally got it down to $30. He said it was his grandmother’s and it reminded him so much of her. I realized that he might be ready to change his mind about selling it, so I walked away fast!

I didn’t start doing it professionally until I had to. I became unemployed and bought things at garage sales and sold them online. Anything you could imagine that I thought might be collectible or desirable. One of the first things I bought were Monopoly coffee cups for a dollar. I sold them for ten bucks apiece.

I was able to pay my house payment and utility bills for three months by going to garage sells and selling stuff online.

2. What’s the best single item you’ve ever purchased?

I have lots of different favorite things. One of my favorite things is a seven-foot tall iron candleholder with six separate places for candles. I was with my parents, and we were going to a mall, and I saw a garage sale sign, and said ‘let’s go.’ I saw this iron gizmo sticking up over this wall, and I told my dad I don’t know what this is, but I think I want it. We went around the corner and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this 7-foot tall candleholder. I asked the lady how much it was and she said I think my daughter wants ten dollars for it. I couldn’t get the money out fast enough. I didn’t even look around the sale, I was worried the daughter would come out and want a hundred for it. So I gave her the ten as fast as I could and I told my dad: pick up the other end, let’s go.

3. What do you think keeps people away from attending yard sales?

The same thing that kept me from attending them. Thinking ‘I don’t want to go to someone’s sale and buy their old crap.’ It’s a huge misconception. You can find brand new things at garage sales.

4. What are some of the key elements to throwing a good yard sale?

To make the most money, don’t price stuff. Often times you’ll get more money if you let people make an offer. When you’re thinking about what to sell, don’t discriminate. You’d be surprised at what sells.

Electronics are very saleable. People will buy them even if they’re broken, for parts. Furniture, collectibles. Anything goes, really. When in doubt, put it out.

5. Do you think Americans in general buy too much stuff?

We are definitely a society that likes to buy stuff, especially new stuff, and garage sales are a great place to do that. You often can buy new things at garage sales, because we all get gifts that we don’t use, or buy things and change our minds about them.

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Vintage Appliances: Adorable and Functional

When I turned thirteen, my Italian grandmother gave me what she felt was an appropriate gift to help me ease into womanhood: a pizzelle maker. (If you have never eaten pizzelles, they are not-very-sweet, waffle-like cookies that were a staple at my grandparents’ house, unignorable when prepared fresh.) For many years this was the only appliance I possessed. Over ten years ago, however, I tragically lost the cord to this appliance, and, because it is was one of these two-prong types from an earlier era (circa 1980), it was tough to replace. A week or so ago, I re-opened my search for a replacement cord, and came across Michael Sheafe’s Toaster Central, which, while primarily a place from which to buy fixed up vintage appliances, also sells my much needed replacement part!

Michael graciously agreed to be interviewed for this site about his business. I hope this will convince you to buy used appliances and to try to find parts for the ones you may already have that are good quality.

1. How did you get into this business? Did you start selling vintage appliances first, and see the need for replacement cords?

In 1967 I bought a great old Sunbeam toaster, took it home, cleaned it up and used and enjoyed it for decades.  In 1998 I’d had a great job downtown for a dozen years, but was burned out and quit my job.

So, after years of hearing people complain about their crappy toasters, I decided to start a little business to supply a decent two-slice pop up toaster. I acquired toasters that were manufactured in the 1930s through the 1960s, cleaned and repaired them, and sold them at the local flea markets.  Just to make toast, and guaranteed to please.  No lights or buzzers or settings for pop tarts; just toast.

The cord sales is a complementary line of business.

2. Do you design or manufacture the cords yourself, or are you a liaison to the manufacturer?

No, they are made commercially, but few hardware stores carry them.  People seem appreciative to find them for sale, but I usually recommend that you check locally at hardware and housewares stores first.  Take the appliance with you.

3. Do you find that vintage appliances are generally better quality than contemporary ones, and are a better investment even on a practical level?

Yes. Older appliances are made of steel and brass and chrome and copper and were designed to be repaired.  They were made by humans assisted by machines, but still essentially hand built.

New appliances are made by machines assisted by humans.  Materials and manufacturing have evolved so that a toaster cannot be repaired, and is made of cheaper materials. (Remember our mass retailer W*lmart is pounding manufacturers to make it cheaper and cheaper.)  Expectation of the lifespan of a new toaster has dropped dramatically.  I believe a refurbished older toaster is a much better value.

4. Are a lot of appliances, like toasters, significantly different in terms of functionality than they were fifty years ago? What are some pros and cons of buying vintage?

Materials are different, manufacturing methods are different, and nearly all new toasters cannot be repaired.

5. I see you also supply movie props. How big a part of your business is that? 

Movies, Broadway and Fifth Avenue (Bergdorf Goodman), and theater and film companies in the US, Canada and Australia.  It’s a small part of my business and requires a good deal of work and special handling.

6. Do you often repair or supply a cord to an appliance with deep sentimental value?

Yes, especially owners of the family toaster or waffle iron, Westinghouse Roaster, or Sunbeam deep fryer.

7. Anything else you’d like to add?

Tread lightly on the earth.

Thanks a lot for the interview! I defy you to not be impressed by his incredible selection of beautiful and functional appliances!