Snake oil

From Academic Kids

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Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment. Accept no substitutes!

Snake oil is a Traditional Chinese medicine used for joint pain. However, the most common usage of the words is as derogatory term for medicines to imply that they are fake, fraudulent, and usually ineffective. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality — such as bogus cryptography (see fraud in cryptography).

Snake Oil and Holy Water is also the title of a well-known essay ( by Richard Dawkins attacking the convergence of science and religion, and Snake Oil is the title of a book by John Diamond attacking alternative medicine.



United States

Snake oil originally came from China, where it was used to as a remedy for inflammation and pain in rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, and other similar conditions.

Chinese labourers on railroad gangs involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad to link North America coast to coast gave it to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin above the pain, snake oil brought relief, or so it was claimed. This claim was ridiculed by other rival medicine salesmen, especially those selling patent medicines.

In time, snake oil became a generic name for the many medicines that were marketed as a panacea or miraculous remedy, whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mis-characterized, and mostly inert or ineffective. At best the placebo effect might provide some temporary relief for whatever the problem might have been.

The snake oil peddler became a stereotype in Western movies: a travelling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling some medicine — such as snake oil — with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To enhance sales, an accomplice in the crowd would often 'attest' the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would prudently leave town before his customers realized that they had been cheated.

W. C. Fields portrayed a snake oil salesman in My Little Chickadee (1940). The English musician and comedy writer Vivian Stanshall satirised a miracle cosmetic as "Rillago - the great ape repellent" and many of J. B. Morton's Beachcomber books and radio programmes included short spoof advertisements for "Snibbo" a fictional treatment allegedly tackling various unlikely human conditions.

The practice of selling dubious remedies for real (or imagined) ailments still occurs today, with different marketing techniques. The term snake oil peddling is used as a derogotary term to describe such practices.

Composition of snake oil

The composition of snake oil medicines can vary markedly between products.

Snake oil sold in San Francisco Chinatown in 1989 was found to contain:

At 20% EPA, Chinese water snake is the richest known source of parent of series 3 prostaglandins. Like essential fatty acids, EPA can be absorbed through the skin. Salmon Oil, the next best source contains 18% EPA. Rattlesnake oil contains 8.5% EPA.

Stanley's snake oil, produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King", was tested by the federal government in 1917. It was found to contain:

(Note that this makes the above similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments. Thus, the original snake oil may have worked rather well as intended, even if it did not contain its alleged ingredients.)

External links

  • Snake Oil History ( by CSICOP.
  • The Snake Oil FAQ ( by Matt Curtin and others; pertaining to cryptographic snake oil.
  • The 'Doghouse' section, a periodic part of Bruce Schneier's newsletter, Crypto-Gram (; also pertaining to cryptographic snake oil.


  • A vindication of the use of snake oil appears in "Fats that heal: Fats that Kill" by Udo Erasmus 1993 ISBN 0-9204470-38-6

See also


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