“Homeopathic” Arnica Cream?

[The following is x-​​posted from my blog, Homologous Legs]

Spurred by recent activity on a post on the Young Australian Skeptics site about the ingredients in homeopathy, I decided I would search my house for any homeopathic products my parents were sneakily keeping hidden from me. Not long after searching, I found this:

It’s a cream manufactured by a company called ‘Brauer Natural Medicines’, and claims to be a topical cream for the “temporary relief of strains, sprains, bruising and sore, aching muscles”, with a homeopathic active ingredient: 1X Arnica montana. This product struck me as a bit odd, and it would have to you already too, if you’ve ever had any experience researching the purported mechanisms of homeopathy.

The oddity comes from the fact that it claims to be homeopathic, yet has an active ingredient with a 1X dilution. People who know nothing about homeopathy are going to be rather confused at this point, so I’ll back off and explain where the disconnect begins.

Homeopathy is an alternative medicine modality developed in 1796 by a German chap named Samuel Hahnemann, based on the principles of the ‘Law of Similars’ (ie. like cures like) and the general philosophy of “dilutions make the treatment stronger” by “imprinting the substance onto the water’s structure”. An example of a homeopathic treatment to cure swelling would be to find something that caused the same symptoms, like a bee sting, grind it up, then dilute it continuously in water, one part substance, nine parts water, each time shaking the container in all three dimensions (called succussing) until the desired level of potency was reached. Homeopathic treatments for almost any illness or ailment can be easily conceived of, so long as you have a substance on hand that causes the same symptoms as the ones you want to treat.

There is something glaringly wrong with homeopathy’s method of action, and it’s evident when you take a look at the actual level of dilution most homeopathic practitioners are talking about.

Homeopathic treatments are usually ranked by a scale of dilution, either the X scale or the C scale, so for example, you could have a 4X dilution or a 7C dilution. Most “effective” dilutions, as proposed by Hahnemann himself, were to be around 30C (or 60X — the ratio between the two is 1C:2X). So, what does 30C entail?

The number before the ‘C’ on the C scale refers to the negative power of one hundred that the substance is diluted to. So, 1C is 100^-1 (or 1/​100), 2C is 100^-2 (or 1/10,000) and so on and so forth. The X scale is different, and uses negative powers of ten instead of one hundred: 1X is 10^-1 (1/​10), 2X is 10^-2 (1/​100), etc.

This means that a 30C dilution is one gram of substance per 100^30 (or 10^60) grams of water, or a one with sixty zeros after it. This is insanely dilute, and the average 30C homeopathic product statistically contains no molecules of the “active” diluted ingredient. Homeopathy of 12C or higher is basically pure water.

So how does this apply to the Arnica cream I have in my hand? Remember that this cream is a 1X homeopathic product, and 1X refers to a dilution of one part substance to nine parts water. This cream is one tenth Arnica montana, a pathetically weak treatment by any homeopathic standard of dilution potency. How the hell is this a homeopathic product? If it were, it should be almost uselessly ineffective.

But, here’s where it gets more interesting. Arnica products have been used traditionally as folk remedies for hundreds of years, and various clinical trials have shown that for some applications various species can be used as anti-​​inflammatory agents, such as the Arnica montana found in this cream. As such, when I apply this cream to a sore muscle I have, what I’m really doing is letting the pharmacological effects of the chemicals in the Arnica montana do their stuff, not healing my body through the “imprint of the Arnica on the water”. Plus, Arnica montana does not produce the symptoms that it is trying to treat, so the ‘Law of Similars’ that underlines all homeopathy does not apply in this case.

This cream is not homeopathic, no matter what the packaging is trying to say. I suspect it is a cheap trick to get a treatment that actually works branded as homeopathy so that the public will get to know the general modality by its successes, which are really the pharmacological effects of some real drugs, as compared to the magical mechanisms of real homeopathy. It’s amazing what some people will do try and get their alternative medicine sold.