"Snake oil" is a common name for a fake or over-hyped product. As defined by urban dictionary:

comes from the 19th-century American practice of selling cure-all elixirs in traveling medicine shows. Snake oil salesmen would falsely claim that the potions would cure any ailments. now-a-days it refers to fake products.

But according to "How Snake Oil Got a Bad Rap" (Collectors Weekly):

The original snake oil actually worked. Save this one for the next cocktail party; it will blow your friends’ minds.

In the 1860s, Chinese laborers immigrated to the United States to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. At night, they would rub their sore, tired muscles with ointment made from Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis), an ancient Chinese remedy they shared with their American co-workers.

and it was all those later salesmen that gave it a bad name.

Although the article contains an explanation and references -- including an article in Scientific American -- to make this point, are these reasonable? It seems reasonable to be skeptical of claims that involve old dates, practices of far off cultures, etc...

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    General questions are off topic here. I massively edited this general question to make it into a question that challenges a notable claim. I note that if the OP wants, they can roll it back and/or edit further by clicking the "edit" link under their post.
    – Paul
    Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 12:57

1 Answer 1


According to NPR's A History Of 'Snake Oil Salesmen':

Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. 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...

...from psychiatrist and researcher Richard Kunin revealed that the Chinese oil contained almost triple the amount of a vital acid as did rattlesnake oil.

So the question now becomes does omega-3 acid help reduce inflammation? According to the University of Maryland Medical Center:

Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

And Web MD's Omega-3 Fact Sheet:

There are many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows strong evidence that the omega-3s EPA and DHA can help lower triglycerides and blood pressure. And there are studies showing that omega-3 fatty acids may help with other conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and many more.

So it would seem that original snake oil was helpful. However the term became derogatory after it was found that a major snake oil salesman's oil contained no snake products. A History Of 'Snake Oil Salesmen'

Stanley's Snake Oil didn't contain any snake oil at all. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 sought to clamp down on the sale of patent medicines and it was that legislation that led to Stanley's undoing. After seizing a shipment of Stanley's Snake Oil in 1917, federal investigators found that it primarily contained mineral oil, a fatty oil believed to be beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. That's right — Stanley's signature product did not contain a drop of actual snake oil, and hundreds of consumers discovered they had been had.

It was probably around then that snake oil became symbolic of fraud.

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    Wait, so rubbing an omega-3-rich cream into joints will ease arthritis symptoms? Surely if that was true, it'd be a popular, prescribed practice by people with arthritis? Is it? And do bodybuilders use it as a post-workout thing? Commented May 28, 2015 at 17:28
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    Is this demonstrated to work as a topical treatment or while taking it orally?
    – Mike
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 19:09
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    @user568458 I'm not sure about the rubbing part vs. taken orally for Omega-3 fatty acids, that came from the NPR quote, but apparently it does reduce inflammation. umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids Commented May 29, 2015 at 1:05

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