This story is part of a series that explores growing health trends that were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these trends stay or go away in the post-pandemic era?
The social media platform TikTok became a sensation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among short videos of dance challenges and whipped coffee recipes, young users are also sharing do-it-yourself tips for healthier living.
These home remedies often require only common household items—lettuce water can be a natural sleeping aid, and putting salt on your tongue may stop a sudden anxiety attack. Some users encourage others to find items in their homes and nearby green spaces to treat maladies or boost their health.
Home remedies have been around for centuries, the knowledge often shared by families and loved ones and passed down through generations.
So how did TikTok become a space for sharing this knowledge? With short videos, users can visualize the remedy in action, often see the results in real time, and connect with strangers who may live thousands of miles away.
When Jenelle Kim, DACM, LAc, founder and chief formulator at JBK Wellness Labs, first got into the beauty industry two decades ago, she says there wasn’t wide-spread acceptance of Eastern herbal medicine. Now, she says herbal products like hers are growing in popularity, even in mainstream U.S. wellness and beauty markets.
“Herbal medicine and integrative medicine is coming to fruition, especially after the year-and-a-half that we went through, where everyone’s health was a concern,” Kim says.
This spring, some TikTokers touted the health benefits of consuming dandelions, encouraging others to include them in teas and syrups. The flowers are known for being rich in vitamins and minerals and have long been used by communities around the world to treat ailments like jaundice, support the liver and gallbladder, enhance immune response, and more.1 Viral videos of people using gua shas to achieve sculpted cheek bones. People in Asia have used gua sha for centuries to promote lymphatic drainage and reduce muscoskeletal pain.2
“At the end of the day, things last because they’re effective,” Kim says.
During the pandemic, advancements in pharmacological medicines—like vaccines and antiviral treatments—have taken center stage in the U.S. When the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 was first authorized a mere 10 months after the first recorded case of the disease in the U.S., it was hailed as a major scientific achievement.
While she maintains the importance of modern Western medicine to public health, Kim says it doesn’t have to work in opposition to the practices of Eastern medicine.
“There is a wonderful place for Western and newer type of developments in medicine, but there’s also a serious need for the age-old understanding of herbal formulation and how that helps our body, especially to strengthen and prevent and maintain,” she says.
As COVID-19-related restrictions kept many Americans at home, some took their health into their own hands, says Dominique Brossard, MS, MPS, PhD, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She sees the rise in TikTok home remedy trends as a potential rejection of pharmacological medicine. Rather than subscribe only to pharmacological medicine, DIY approaches put the user back in control.
“There’s this whole idea of being in control of your life and of your health,” Brossard says. “You do it yourself, in your home. You’re in control. There’s even some part of fun to it.”
Some TikTok wellness trends are relatively benign. A flurry of videos this spring showed people crafting colorful bowls of fruit salad and fruit juice, dubbed “nature’s cereal.” Some users recommended taping a potato to one’s face to resolve cystic acne there.
While the potato trick may not help most people, Kim says it also likely won’t hurt.
Some trends aren’t so risk-free. In India, two families were hospitalized for drinking jimsonweed juice after seeing it used as a COVID-19 remedy on TikTok. In one video, which garnered over 5 million views, TikTokers stuck cloves of garlic in their nostrils for congestion relief.
These videos can be provocative—it can be enticing to watch snot ooze from someone’s nose if you suffer from allergies and are seeking relief from the congestion. The outpouring is not likely due to some cleansing property of the garlic, but rather the body’s attempt to flush out the irritant, Kim says.
As people experiment with new remedies, Kim adds that it’s critical to pay attention to how their body responds.
“With TikTok and different platforms like this, every single day there are a hundred new remedies. There’s got to be a point where you have to know yourself and know your own conditions and make a proper evaluation of how to treat yourself,” Kim says.
Videos on TikTok are shorter than those on YouTube, and the platform is designed to encourage users to watch countless videos.
Being exposed to high volumes of media on such platforms can allow people to connect with others around the world who look like them, live similar lifestyles or are interested in similar activities, Brossard says. Different from reading text, videos like those shared on TikTok can be much more personable.
“If you read words from someone where you cannot picture what they look like, you trust them potentially less than someone you see that looks like you, or that you can identify some shared attributes—it could be fashion, it could be age, it could be whatever,” Brossard says.
“Our society is more and more isolating and individual. If you can find individuals that share your values and your interests and your hobbies, people build connections,” Brossard adds. “That’s very empowering.”
Sometimes, TikTokers express surprise that there are others who practice similar rituals or use home remedy recipes similar to those they grew up with.
User @audreyvictoria_ shared a video showing people how to use rosemary oil to thicken hair. Tony Youn, MD, a plastic surgeon who commonly comments on the legitimacy of certain medical and beauty claims on TikTok, shared the video with a link to a clinical study supporting the claim.
“This is a Mexican indigenous thing we do for our hair,” one viewer commented. “Yep Brazilians always use rosemary for our hair,” said another.
Pharmacological medicine is regulated and typically comes with lots of information about dosage, side effects, and best uses. In contrast, proponents of home-based remedies—which typically aren’t formally regulated at all—can gain trust by framing a remedy recipe as a generational practice.
“There’s a mental shortcut that we take when we say, ‘homemade,’ ‘natural,’ and so on. It’s perceived that all these must be good,” Brossard says. “They think that because it’s homemade and from some grandmother, or grandfather, or some familiar face, who has tried it and was okay, that that’s enough data to actually give us confidence.”
Brossard, who teaches science communications, says that one to three minutes can be plenty of time to share the appropriate recipe and use for a home remedy. Even if communicated thoroughly and accurately, however, Brossard says it is up to the person who receives that information to decide whether to use it appropriately.
Taking health matters into one’s own hands can be empowering for some people. Like the bread-baking flurry that wiped grocery store shelves of flour and yeast at the start of the pandemic, the turn to home-based remedies is partially about being in control of one’s health and well-being, Brossard says.
She sees it as push-back against the use of heavily processed and commercialized products, in favor of more economical and natural alternatives.
“The younger generation is more sustainable…they are much more [attuned] to making the world a better place and wanting to go back to nature,” Brossard says. “It’s part of that movement–going back to something that seems more natural, you do it yourself. You’re not doing something that gives money to those rich corporations.”
Brossard says when young people see others sharing home remedies, it creates a “ripple effect.” Now, there are more than two billion videos categorized as “home remedies.” Last month, TikTok reached one billion monthly active users after surging in popularity during the pandemic, and social media experts say the app might just keep growing to reach new audiences.