The Biggest Health Myths of All Time

Experts weigh in to help us determine fact from fiction when it comes to health rumors we’ve heard through the grapevine.

by Judy Koutsky Health Writer

Remember back in the day when everyone was putting toothpaste on their pimples because urban myth had it that this was a quick and easy remedy for clear skin? There are still plenty of health myths out there, but what is fact and what is fiction? And why are some myths still circulating even after they’ve been long debunked? From dermatology to mental health, we asked the experts to weigh in on 22 of the biggest health myths of all time.

Mental Health

Myth: Couples therapy is only for people who are in crisis.

“Couples therapy ideally can be used preventively before a crisis and for navigating any challenge in any relationship,” says New York City-based psychotherapist Meredith Prescott, LCSW, who specializes in young adults and couples dealing with anxiety, relationship issues, and chronic illness. “Many people come to couples therapy at all different points in their journey and do not necessarily consider ending the relationship.”

Myth: People who start antidepressants can never get off of them.

There is no one-size-fits-all rule for medications that treat mental disorders. “People can stay on antidepressants if they are working for long periods of time but many people wean off these medications under adequate supervision of a licensed psychiatrist,” says Prescott.

Myth: Suicide only affects people with mental illness.

The truth is no one is immune to suicide, but there are those at higher risk. “When talking about suicide, we look at mental health, substance use, and life stressors both biological and life/environment vulnerabilities,” says Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., a psychologist and vice president of Mission Engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Atlanta. For someone who is suicidal, these come together in a perfect storm. “We should look at everyone in our lives regardless of mental health struggles, race, age or financial status and know they aren't immune to it,” she says.

Skin Health

Myths: Tanning beds are safer than the sun.

Come on, now... you're not still falling for that one, right? “Tanning beds are more than 15 times more dangerous than the sun,” says Jennifer Trent, M.D., a dermatologist in Sarasota, FL. “Just because tanning beds don’t emit UVB rays that give you a sunburn, they still have the deadly UVA rays. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, leading to more wrinkles, damage, and cancers.”

Myth: Oily skin doesn’t need moisturizer.

“All skin types need moisturizer to hydrate, lubricate, and protect the skin,” says Dr. Trent. If you don’t give oily skin moisturizer, it will start overproducing oil because it thinks it is dry. If you have oily skin, stick to lightweight lotions or gel moisturizers.

Myth: I don’t need to wear sunscreen on cloudy days.

So not true! You need to wear sunscreen every day you leave your house. “There are still harmful UV rays on cloudy days that can damage your skin,” says Dr. Trent. “You also need to reapply your sunscreen every one to two hours you are exposed to the sun. That includes sitting in the car or by a window in your house. Pick a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays. It should be an SPF of 50.”

Myth: Only women over 40 years old should use a retinol.

“Retinol has often been referred to as the gold standard of skincare,” says Howard Sobel, M.D., founder of Sobel Skin and attending dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “It is ideal to start using retinol in your mid to late 20s in order to prevent damage from occurring." Think of it this way: It’s easier to prevent a wrinkle then get rid of one, says Dr. Sobel. Using a retinol can increase collagen production and skin cell turnover, help treat acne, unclog pores, minimize fine lines and wrinkles, and even out skin tone. “Start introducing retinol slowly into your routine two to three times a week. After a few weeks, you can start using it almost every day,” he says.

Myth: Eye creams don't work.

“Eye cream can have many benefits if it contains the right ingredients and is formulated for your specific skin concerns,” says Dr. Sobel. “The ingredient that is important for this is caffeine, which is often considered a skincare myth. Caffeine is an anti-inflammatory that can brighten skin and decrease inflammation as it constricts the blood vessels and increases blood flow.” This can cause skin under the eye to appear less puffy while also improving circulation. It can also help congested vessels under the eyes by constricting the blood vessels, which will reduce the appearance of dark circles and can reduce puffiness.

“However, caffeine should be combined with smoothing, hydrating, and brightening ingredients, as caffeine alone is not the trick,” he says, adding that you should look for at least one other ingredient such as hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, and retinol. These, in combination with caffeine, are the best at eliminating fine lines, wrinkles, and dark circles.

Eye Health

Myth: Carrots improve vision.

Many people mistakenly believe that carrots enhance vision or reduce the need for glasses or contacts. “They absolutely do not,” says Dagny Zhu, M.D., cornea, cataract, and refractive surgeon and medical director at HyperSpeed LASIK NVISION Eye Centers in Rowland Heights, CA. “Instead, carrots are simply one source of vitamin A, which is essential for maintaining healthy vision and retinal function. However, only a relatively small amount of vitamin A is needed.”

Myth: If you cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way.

Actually, that was just your parents trying to scare you. “Eye muscles control the movement of your eyes up, down, left, and right,” says Dr. Zhu. “Crossing your eyes may fatigue your muscles, but will not cause your eyes to stay that way.” He adds that crossed eyes can be a sign of serious eye or brain disease and cause double vision, so if your eyes are crossing without intentional effort on your part, it’s important to see an eye doctor right away.

Myth: Color-blind people see in black and white.

“Almost all color-blind people see in partial color rather than grayscale,” says Dr. Zhu. He adds that the most common form of color blindness is red-green color blindness, which causes difficulty distinguishing between red and green, but the majority of other colors are preserved.

Myth: Blue light from screens can damage your eyes.

“While some studies have shown that high intensity blue light causes retinal toxicity in the laboratory, the amount of light emitted from everyday screens in real life is minimal and very unlikely to cause damage,” says Dr. Zhu. The greatest source of blue light is actually from the sun, and it’s the UV rays that pose a much greater risk to eye health. Computer use can cause eye strain and fatigue due to intense focusing and dry eye from reduced blinking. Take frequent breaks and use lubricant eye drops to reduce these symptoms.

Foot Health

Myth: All heel pain is plantar fasciitis.

Plantar fasciitis is a condition where the ligament on the bottom of the foot, called the plantar fascia, gets inflamed and causes pain. It is common, especially if you like to run, but it is by no means the only reason for pain in your heel. “There can be conditions like tarsal tunnel syndrome and Baxter's neuritis to be aware of as well,” says Patrick McEneaney, DPM, owner and CEO of Northern Illinois Foot & Ankle Specialists in Crystal Lake, IL. People can have swelling in their heel bone, stress fractures of their heels, and many other conditions which can mimic plantar fasciitis.

Myth: You can walk on it, so it’s not broken.

Ashley Lee, M.D., a podiatrist at Northern Illinois Foot & Ankle Specialists and board-certified with the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, says he’s had many patients walk in with ankle fractures weeks after the injury saying they didn’t come in right away because they could walk on it. Guess what? It was broken. If you significantly hurt your foot, get it checked out.

Myth: Rolling ankles as you age is normal.

“There's a common misconception that it's normal for your ankles to roll when you're walking,” says Dr. McEneaney. It’s not true. Typically, these problems start as an ankle pain and old sprains from when people were younger that resurface in your 30s and 40s when the ankle ligaments may not hold as tight as they used to, leading to instability and rolling.

Left unchecked, ankle instability can progress into damage to the cartilage in the ankle and eventually even arthritis of the ankle. “To diagnose this, we’ll typically do an x-ray or MRI or do what’s called a stress exam, where the doctor stresses the ligaments to see if they hold,” he says. "A lot of times, bracing and therapy can be a permanent fix for this when it's not a simple ankle ligament repair; we can actually tighten up the ankle.”

Digestive Health

Myth: Detox diets and cleanses work.

Let's start with your definition of "works." Can you lose weight on a cleanse? Sure. You can also lose weight if you just drink water for a week. Is that sustainable? Of course not, and neither are detox diets or cleanses. Furthermore, there is no single diet that can "detox" your body (sorry). The good news? “Your liver cleanses the body, at all times, from any toxins,” says Holly Klamer, a Michigan-based registered dietitian and nutritionist.

Myth: Fruit is bad because of the high sugar content.

“Not all sugars are the same, and one very well-known myth is about the potential sugar in our fruits. There are natural sugars in fruits, but also fiber and nutrients that helps the body metabolize the sugar. So don’t stop eating fruit because of the sugar in it,” says Amy Lee, M.D., a member of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists and the American Board of Obesity Medicine.

Myth: The three-second rule is real.

You know that lore: If you drop food on the floor and pick it up within three seconds, it's still OK to eat it? Nah. “There is no set time for this sort of food safety issue, says Brynna Connor, M.D., a family medicine practitioner in Austin, TX, and healthcare ambassador at NorthWestPharmacy.com. “What it really depends on is the surface it landed on, not the amount of time it’s on the floor.” Dr. Connor adds that food could be contaminated in less than three seconds if the surface is really dirty.

Reproductive Health

Myth: I’m pregnant and eating for two.

“Most women are overeating while pregnant,” says Diana Torres a certified midwife at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in New York City. “In pregnancy an extra 300 calories should be consumed and it should come from healthy balanced meals.” Women of average weight should gain 25-30 lbs while obese women may gain 10-20. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, maintaining a healthy weight in pregnancy decreases the incidence of diabetes, gestational hypertension, and preterm birth among other risk factors.

Myth: I need to douche to keep my vagina healthy.

“Douching is one of the worst things you can do to the vagina,” says Torres. Douching alters the natural acidic ph of the vagina and kills normal vaginal flora that is protective. Without that normal flora the incidence of things like yeast infection and BV bacterial vaginosis is increased. “The vagina is self-cleaning nothing more than mild soap and water on the vulva is needed,” she explains.

Myth: Bleeding after menopause is normal.

Not so. If you're still seeing blood after your period days are over, something's up, and you should get yourself checked out asap. “If a woman sees bleeding after menopause it can be an early sign of uterine cancer, fibroids, polyps or uterine hyperplasia,” says Torres. “It is definitely not normal to see bleeding after menopause and should be addressed with a provider as soon as feasible.”

Myth: Postpartum depression is rare.

This myth is so busted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in eight women will experience clinical postpartum depression. "And as many as 70% to 80% of women will experience ‘baby blues,’ a milder form of depression,” says Torres. In the United States this correlates to almost 600,000 women. So if you're struggling with sadness after your baby is born, you are not alone. Talk with your doctor about steps you can take to get your mojo back.

Judy Koutsky
Meet Our Writer
Judy Koutsky

Judy Koutsky is an award-winning writer and editor and her work has appeared in over 30 publications including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Parents, WebMD, Prevention and Scholastic. You can see her work at JudyKoutsky.com or follow her on Instagram @JudyKoutsky.