Diatomaceous earth, something that has been long touted as the “go-to” non-toxic bug killer and overall health improvement solution.
But is it as good as it sounds?
Based on the countless health and wellness articles out there writing glowing reviews of it, spouting mostly rehashed advice on diatomaceous earth benefits and uses. Each article tends to copy/paraphrase the same list of benefits over and over again…
Seriously, take 2 minutes and check the internet for this stuff.
If you didn’t know any better you’d believe that you should mix in DE with your cereal every morning or sprinkle a little DE on your dinner.
And when used for pest control, people are lining their entire houses with the stuff and it looks like a low-budget Scarface remake primed for inducing respiratory issues for all who residents…
The thing is…
When use improperly (food grade or not) DE is not safe, in fact, it’s more likely that you’ll end up using DE in a way that will make you or your family sick.
The truth is, yes DE does have some benefits, but if you’re going to put a scoop into your water bottle every morning or attempt to deploy it throughout your home (as some articles advise you do)…
Then you should know exactly what the heck you’re putting in your body… right?
Our objective and reason for publishing this article: Safety
Right now there is an ongoing circulation of bad, misinformed, incomplete, and overall biased information regarding diatomaceous earth. This article is intended to bring to light much of the research (Peer reviewed articles and Government regulation) surrounding DE and the potential dangers of its contents in a way that people can understand.
Many of the websites that list the “Benefits and Uses of Diatomaceous Earth” have a stake in the game. They are usually trying to sell you Diatomaceous earth or make a commission by referring you to another store through an affiliate link. They are incentivized to paint the product in the best light. A lot of the bad “not so fun” information is left out or not highlighted as nearly enough as it should be.
As a result, you have a recipe for disaster with people reading, sharing, and spreading anecdotal information stemming from these articles about a topic potentially affecting thousands of people causing respiratory issues and/or further pest problems.
Not convinced? Here’s an example of someone on Amazon recommending someone to use Pool Grade DE to kill bed bugs…
Based on this comment, someone who doesn’t know better might act on that information and start spreading pool grade DE throughout his or her house, which is extremely dangerous.
And don’t misunderstand us, there are some DE companies that are doing a great job informing their customers about the dangerous and correct applications of the product. This article aims to educate and help avoid any misapplication of the product.
So what is diatomaceous earth REALLY?
Diatomaceous earth is entirely made of silica, which originated from the fossilized remains of microscopic aquatic plants called diatoms. Over thousands of years, these diatoms have accumulated in the sediment of rivers, lakes, and oceans turning into the natural substance silica (remember this because it’s important).
The silica from the rivers, lakes, and oceans is mined and processed for various uses around the world.
DE’s main uses include: filters for pools, cosmetics, insulation, anti-caking, filler, absorbents, and of course, pest control.
The pest control variants of DE are slightly different, including specialized formulations, which might include ammonium fluorosilicate, silica aerogel, or other ingredients meant to attract pests into the dust.
(insert google trends image showing increased interest over time)
Let’s talk about silica…
Remember when I mentioned silica? This is the stuff that those aquatic organisms turned into thousands of years ago and now composes about 26% of earth’s crust.
Well silicon (not to be confused with silicone, that’s what breast implants are made of) is an element of silica, which is another name for silicon dioxide.
Now Silicon Dioxide (aka “free silica”) has two VERY different naturally occurring forms. One is very dangerous, the other, not so much (but could be).
The two forms are:
- Silicon Dioxide, Crystalline (very dangerous)
- Silicon Dioxide, Amorphous (kinda dangerous)
Silicon Dioxide, Crystalline (very dangerous if mishandled)
Crystalline silica is the bad stuff and the stuff you should worry about when you’re around DE.
In 1996, and again in 2009, the World Health organization – International Agency on Cancer Research classified crystalline silica as a “known human carcinogen”. The American Thoracic Society and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine have also addressed the dangerous attributes of crystalline silica.
The main issue with crystalline silica (also known as Quartz, which is a basic component of sand and soil) is that it can be small enough to penetrate your lungs when inhaled causing a number of illnesses such as:
- Silicosis (this is not cancer)
- Lung Cancer
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
You shouldn’t fool around with this stuff, and although DE is not entirely made of crystalline silica, you need to be aware that it is made out of very similar material that can actually become crystalline silica (the bad stuff) under excessive heat or contain bits of crystalline silica under poor processing standards by manufacturers. It’s almost impossible to remove all the crystalline silica from naturally occurring DE, so there will always be some percentage in there.
…unless you’re a miner, sandblaster, regularly remove paint from bridges, or work with concrete a lot, you’ll probably avoid 99% of the bad stuff during your normal routine.
In case you’re curious, I added a full list of the types of activities that would put you at risk for exposing yourself to crystalline silica.
Silicon Dioxide, Amorphous (this stuff is what DE is made out of)
Amorphous silica is a tad different. Naturally occurring amorphous silica is what diatomaceous earth is made of. I say naturally occurring, because you could technically make this stuff in a lab and get “synthetic amorphous silica” which is a purer form.
Let’s ignore the science for a second.
What’s really important to understand here is that DE is made up of naturally occurring amorphous silica made from fossil skeletons of microscopic marine plants known as diatoms.
What’s crazy is that crystalline silica and amorphous silica are both made out of the exact same stuff, but arranged differently at an atomic level.
The differences between the two is that crystalline is more structured and rigged, where amorphous is more loose and without shape.
This is important because the difference in structure could mean that your lungs could breathe in the stuff easily or could cause sever health issues.
Why do people love DE so much?
People love DE because it has multiple uses and benefits. DE can…
- Help with bed bugs, fleas, roaches, etc
- Reduce body odor
- Supports your hair, nails, and teeth
- Exfoliates your skin
- Remove parasites
There are a ton of benefits to DE if used correctly according the labeling. The key is to use it according to label, which due to the prevalence of mixed information on the internet, people tend to mess this up.
DE for Pest Control Purposes (NOT FOOD GRADE or FILTER GRADE)
One of the most popular methods of using DE is to kill bugs.
The DE that you’d use for pest control purposes is not food grade DE. DE labeled to kill pests has been evaluated by the EPA and is given an EPA registration number. This is important because the EPA evaluates pesticides for human health and environmental risks.
Out of that review, the manufacturers are required to put special notices on the labels letting you (the consumer) know exactly what the product is intended to do. The manufacturer is required by law to tell people exactly how the product can affect them if inhaled, touched, swallowed, etc.
But let’s face it.
From bed bugs, fleas, roaches, or whatever, you’ll probably at some point turn to DE to help eventually…
Pest Control DE is a low-toxic form of killing bugs which is often used as a food additive in grain production and is classified as desiccant, which means it absorbs moisture from insects’ bodies causing them dry them out and eventually die.
It can be an effective pest control solution, but we would look at it as a long term “slow” approach that should be combined with other forms of pest control.
For bed bugs it can take up to 10 days for DE to actually take effect and sometimes even longer. Ants and other bugs tend to be slightly less resistant, so you might end up fairing a bit better. In fact, this recent study in 2013 found that DE actually ISN’T very effective for bed bug control when used as a standalone solution.
DE For Health Purposes (Food Grade DE)
Second to bed bug and flea control, DE is gaining popularity with health enthusiasts looking for the next best supplement.
If you surf the web for a bit and read up on articles for the health benefits of DE you’ll soon come to wonder how you could’ve lived without this white powdery chalky substance for so long???
Okay… we’re being a little sarcastic....
But anytime you read one of these “expert” articles, just be careful and look for authoritative, verifiable evidence, that what they’re saying is actually true.
So does DE have health benefits?
Although we’re being critical of DE in this article, we want to communicate that there are some benefits of DE in your diet.
BUT, and this is a huge but… there is no clear scientific evidence on the benefits of supplementing with specifically diatomaceous earth. The benefits that have been reported are the results of people’s own opinions and experiences. Because DE is listed as a supplement, and supplements do not need FDA approval to be sold to the public, there will always be questions surrounding its true effectiveness.
That being said, there are a lot of anecdotal reports circulating around the internet with most people reporting that DE is a great detoxifier. If consumed with water immediately out of the bag, it cleans out your gut, removing built up toxins, and potential parasites that line your intestinal tract. People like to compare it to activated charcoal but instead of absorbing bad stuff, it sweeps the bad stuff.
Other reports of benefits with supplementing with DE cite the fact that DE is made out of silica. Silica deficiencies have been linked to Alzheimer’s, Osteoporosis, and other not so good sicknesses. Therefore, if you have more silica in your diet you reduce the risk of these types of diseases, which makes sense, But instead of choking down chalky white food grade de liquid, you could also get silica from other more absorbable sources, such as Green Beans, normal drinking water, and even Beer (yep that’s right!).
What’re the differences between diatomaceous earth and diatomaceous earth “food grade”?
There are actually three main types of diatomaceous earth that I’m going to list to help you understand the differences.
Diatomaceous Earth Food Grade
Diatomaceous earth food grade is the stuff that all the health websites and garden resources preach to use to improve your health.
Because DE contains silica, many different “experts” recommend mixing DE Food Grade in with water and drinking it to improve overall health.
The difference between diatomaceous earth food grade and any other kind of DE is that it contains 99% amorphous silica and no other added ingredients/chemicals. This is important because OSHA requires diatomaceous earth with >1% crystalline silica to be labeled stating the findings related to its toxicity to humans. Don’t forget that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) acknowledged that natural DE may contain 0.1 to 4% of crystalline silica embedded within it, which means that reputable manufactures of Food Grade DE should go through a diligent purification process to ensure the reduction of these levels. Diatomaceous earth with crystalline silica levels of above 1% of require additional labeling and warnings.
Diatomaceous Earth Labeled for Pest Control
Diatomaceous earth labeled for pest control is NOT as safe as food grade. Pest Control DE usually has specific additives to attract pests into the dusts, which make them more dangerous to human health.
If you’re buying something meant to kill bugs, and the product label states that it is intended to kill bugs, then that product had to undergo specific testing required by the Environmental Protection Agency.
By law, if a product says it can kill pests, then the EPA performs two types of pesticide risk assessments:
- Human Health Risk: The risk associated with human exposure. The product is evaluated in scenarios where humans breathe, drink, eat, or touch the substance.
- Ecological Risk: This is the risk associated with the environment. If you apply a pesticide in your garden, how does that affect the environment? Some pesticides in other products have serious effects on the surrounding water and animals.
Regulators evaluate the product and require certain “Signal Words” to let consumers know how dangerous it is. Food grade DE and pool grade DE are not labeled to kill pests thus do not need to go under EPA review.
Diatomaceous Earth Filter Grade
The last diatomaceous earth product is the “filter grade” or “pool grade” version.
This is the most dangerous form of DE you can buy, because formulations can have as much as 60-70% crystalline silica in the product.
In case you forget, crystalline silica is extremely dangerous to breathe in, and can cause severe damage to your lungs.
DE Filter grade is mainly used as a pool cleaner and nothing else.
So is diatomaceous earth safe?
Now again, if you were to blindly read most health blogs or news outlets you’d think that the stuff is like magic and will fix all your problems, from diabetes to credit card debt...
But is it actually safe and are there any side effects?
Well, that depends on how you use it.
And not all diatomaceous earth blends are created equal (there are three main types as we just mentioned). On top of that, any substance (natural or not) in large enough dosages is dangerous.
DE, if used properly is safe, but if you don’t read the directions or receive bad advice, things could change very quickly.
For example, if you’re spreading DE all over your house in hopes of killing what might’ve been a bed bug, and then scooping that same DE into your morning smoothie, that kind of careless attitude is going to get you closer and closer to the “not-so-safe” side of things to say the least…
That behavior creates a careless attitude about something that could have negative effects on your health if mishandled.
Eating Diatomaceous earth
If you’re reading this right now wondering if DE is safe to eat, I’ve got news for you, chance are that you’ve already been eating DE as farmers use it to protect food from insects. The FDA reported in 2001, there were roughly 170,000 tons of DE is used to filter food products. Also the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports (NIOSH) cite no issues with ingestion.
To clarify, eating FOOD GRADE DE is fine, but we would advise against pest control grade or any other grade for that matter. The reason being, pest control grade diatomaceous earth usually has other additives and/or chemicals to attract the pest you’re trying to kill. In order to be called “Food Grade” manufacturers need to purify their product to the point where there is less than 1% crystalline silica in the blend.
Some of the other forms of DE may be used to help clean your pool. As I’m sure you could imagine, eating stuff used to clean water is probably not a good idea, so please avoid it.
Touching diatomaceous earth
There have been no known issues documented anywhere reporting any dangers with touching DE. Aside from a little dry skin, you should be fine to touch it.
Breathing Diatomaceous Earth
Of all the things that you could do with DE, breathing it, is something you should NOT do.
If you get anything from this article, inhaling DE (Food Grade or not) is dangerous. This is the #1 worst thing you could do when buying this product from anywhere. The CDC, OSHA, EPA, and other bodies of knowledge continuously agree that breathing in Crystalline or Amorphous silica (the stuff that DE is made of) is bad for human health.
End of story.
Therefore, if you’re buying it to kill pests or for health reasons make sure you handle it with extreme care. In fact, for pest control purposes, we recommend utilizing a respirator for breathing and a duster to apply a light film in low traffic areas where you think bed bugs are hanging out.
What does the government think about diatomaceous earth?
Most of the focus on the health hazards for DE have been around risk of inhaling the powdery substance.
OSHA and the CDC in the United States have weighed in on silica deeming that both crystalline and amorphous silica represent health hazards when inhaled. Both agencies have set exposure limits, to protect people from over exposure. The EPA also weighed in on DE, and found it to have of toxicity of “moderate to low”
If you’re concerned about eating it (for health purposes), we need to turn to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA noted that for diatomaceous earth (food grade) formulations, so long as there is less than 2% of DE on the product by weight, then it is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). As we mentioned earlier, NIOSH also report no issues with ingestion.
How do use diatomaceous earth?
Okay so now you understand the differences between the products. How should you go about using each type?
Glad you asked!
How to best use DE Food Grade
In order to know how best to implement Food Grade DE into your life, you first need to figure out which benefits you’d like to aim for.
There are a couple of main uses of food grade DE with specific ways you should go about using it:
- Consuming it for health purposes: There are tons of anecdotal reports coming out of the woodwork touting DE Food Grade as a “super supplement” something similar to activated charcoal reducing the amount of toxins in y our body. The main method of consumption is adding about 1 tablespoon to a 16oz cup of of water on an empty stomach. Based on the research, DE is better suited as a detox supplement rather than a silica supplement. The silica in DE is absorbed poorly through natural ingestion, instead stick to eating green beans if you need to add a bump of silica to your diet.
- Rubbing it on your skin as to exfoliate: Due to the abrasiveness of DE, mixing it with essential oils and water can make a paste like substance that can be used as a facial scrub or mask. Simply mix the parts together to create consistency you feel comfortable with. Apply the paste to your skin and rub your forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin. Wash off when finished.
How to best use DE labeled for pest control
First, we do not recommend using anything other than DE labeled for pest control to be used for pest control purposes. This is because the EPA regulates anything labeled to kill bugs, thus it’s wise to make sure you know how the product is going to affect you. For example, Food Grade DE is not labeled to kill bugs, thus not reviewed by the EPA.
Can food grade DE kill bugs?
Yes… but that doesn’t mean you should use it for that purpose.
If you are going to use DE to kill bugs, the #1 most important thing to understand is HOW TO APPLY DE around your house because misapplying DE could result in serious consequence. When face with a bug problem, most people will improperly use it out of stress or anxiety.
Here are a couple of scenarios and potential resulting effects of misapplying Pest Control DE:
Here are just some of the ways people mess up when applying DE around their house and how you should apply the DE correctly:
- Over applying DE: If you over apply DE the bugs you are trying to kill will simply go around the miniature piles you’ve created. If you’re dealing with bed bugs, you might also trigger migrations to new parts of your house as the bed bugs attempt to avoid the piles. You should apply DE as a very thin (almost invisible) layer in the specific treatment area. Less is more in this case.
- Applying DE in the wrong place: If you’re using DE you need to apply it in locations where it won’t be disturbed (e.g., no foot traffic, no wind, etc). If the powder starts to kick up into the air, you’ll start to enter into dangerous territory. Keep it out of door ways, hallways, and away from windows. Also be mindful of turning on fans where you’ve applied DE to avoid blowing it around.
- Just using DE: This isn’t a bug killing guide, but if you have bugs, just using DE to kill them is almost always going to lead to disappointment. Bed bugs in particular are an extremely resilient bug and tough to get rid of. You’ll need to deploy a more comprehensive pest control strategy and you will likely have to call an exterminator.
- Applying it with the wrong tools: If you’re using DE in your house, you’re going to need something to help you apply it with care. In this case, a puffer, a turkey baster, or a paint brush are all tools that could effectively apply it as a thin layer. You should also buy a protective mask or respirator to avoid any accidental inhalation (food grade or not).
- Not cleaning up your DE: It’s surprising to say that most homeowner may not think to ever clean up the DE they put in their house. If you have a bug problem and apply DE, if you ever reach out to an exterminator, they may refuse to treat your home until you clean it up. In general avoid hard wood floors with lots of cracks to make cleanup easier. Using a mop or a shop vac are usually good options to pick it up after use.
We say this a lot, but it needs to be said again for emphasis. DE can be a great pest control method if use properly and according to its label. The issue is a mix of poor information on the internet and the increased stress of bug problems that usually result in the great chance of incorrect use.
Rule of thumb… if you can see the amount of DE you’ve applied around your house you’ve applied too much. If you can follow that one rule, you should be “OK” about 99% of the time.
How to best use DE filter Grade
The last type of DE in our guide, is DE Filter grade. DE Filter grade usually consists of mostly highly abrasive crystalline silica (the dangerous stuff) used to filter out bad stuff from your pools. Some formulations contain as much as 70% crystalline silica, which presents an extreme health risk if inhaled.
Most often you use DE Filter grade on conjunction with a DE Pool Filter, which is a machine that can trap particles as small as 5 microns, much smaller than what you can actually see.
Because this guide’s primary focus is on DE used for consumption or pest control, I’ll defer to this helpful article if you want to learn more about DE Filter Grade.
The bottom line: (DE is dangerous if used incorrectly)
At the end of the day, our main motivation for publishing this article and being critical on a product that has been widely touted as a great healthy product is because of how easy it is to misuse it.
There’s not enough content discussing the safety aspects of using DE, which creates bad situations when people don’t care to read the label of the product they’re using.
For example, when people go to their favorite website, read that Diatomaceous Earth has 20 benefits and uses and that it could change your life, what else would you do but go immediately to Amazon and buy a 10 pound bag? Mix that in with a bad bug problem in your house, and ‘carefully reading the label’ goes right out the window.
All you can think about is getting rid of whatever pest is in your house not the safest way to use the product.
It gets worse when people start associating pest control DE with food grade DE (or even Pool Grade!) and misunderstand the differences. When shopping around, you might just see DE and think, “Well, all DE is the same right?”
The next thing you know, if you have people putting pest control DE in their water bottles, because they think all DE is the same, then you have a sure fire recipe for disaster.
Most of the articles out there will say that food grade de can be used for pest control purposes, which is technically true because the core components of pest control DE are still there (amorphous silica), but they will be extremely careless in their application. Most of these health websites don’t understand pest control, thus the reader is likely to mishandle the product.
Also, all pest control products are required to be evaluated by the EPA before use. Food Grade DE is not labeled for pest control thus doesn’t go under scrutiny. If there’s no review, you have no idea what will happen to you if you breathe it in, touch it, etc.
Just to reiterate, regardless of how beneficial it is to drink a tablespoon of DE with water, inhaling DE is bad for you, it just is. Some articles may equate inhaling DE to inhaling normal dust in the air, which we would completely disagree.
There’s a reason bugs die when they walk over DE and not dust in your house… Because it’s actually dangerous. Not because of harsh chemicals, but because of the abrasive nature of the product.
The WHO, IACR, CDC, OSHA, and the EPA have all documented diatomaceous earth and its inner ingredients and put restrictions on how much a normal person could inhale before things start to get dangerous.
That should be reason enough for you to think twice when you buy another 10 pound bag and lining your house with it.
So please, if you use DE, read the label and apply it with care.