How Snake Oil Got Its Reputation

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

We refer to things as snake oil whenever it over promises, scams, has no proof in being able to do what its been marketed to do or when it's just plain ridiculous. But did you know real snake oil works?

Snake Oil is a traditional Chinese medicine that is made from the fats and oils extracted from the Chinese water snake. According to a neurophysiologist who examined snake oil:

Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. Salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3s, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.

Omega-3s are vital for human metabolism. Not only do they sooth inflammation in muscles and joints, but also, they can help "cognitive function and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and even depression."


In the 1860s, Chinese railroad workers would use that Snake Oil to rub their sore muscles. They shared the secret elixir with their American counterparts...and then things got crazy. People who heard of this snake oil tried to make their own, without the Chinese water snake, and instead with Rattlesnakes—because they were scarier.

To sell people on their products, these companies toured the West with elaborate carnival-like "medicine shows" often featuring live music, puppetry, acrobatics, blackface performers, and sideshow acts. The medicine show always culminated with a dramatic demonstration of the remedy "healing" audience members, usually "shills" placed in the crowd by the company.


When examining this kind of snake oil they found that it didn't contain one ounce of snake oil but instead some fatty oil from cattle and red pepper (to warm the skin) and turpentine or camphor (to give a medicinal smell). The Snake Oil marketed and sold by these people did nothing, hence the Snake Oil reputation. Read the whole history of Snake Oil at Collector's Weekly [Collectors Weekly via Neatorama]