Gwyneth Paltrow is widely known for her Academy Award-winning performance in the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love.
She’s also popular with many comic-loving cinema fans for her role as Pepper Potts in the Iron Man series.
Paltrow is also known as the founder and owner of Goop, a lifestyle website that features healthy living content, style advice, and a robust e-commerce section that sells all the products you need to live the Goop life.
The website, in fact, has become popular enough that it just completed its second Goop Health Summit, held in New York City this past week.
It’s Goop that’s added the word “controversial” before Paltrow’s long list of accomplishments and acclaims.
Goop, which started in 2008 as a newsletter Paltrow produced herself, is today a multimillion dollar lifestyle brand with product extensions, licensing agreements, educational summits, and even a print magazine.
Alongside stories about what florals are best to wear in the winter, you can find vitamin packs geared to helping you work faster and stronger.
Beside a story about the parasites hiding on a playground, you can find cautionary pieces about asbestos in cosmetics.
The Goop mission is to help you navigate a world that’s filled with toxic and potentially dangerous products.
“We take a curious, unbiased, open-minded, and service-centric approach to the work we do,” Goop writes on their website.
But that “unbiased” approach has left many skeptics in its wake — and with some evidence to back up their suspicions.
Goop and its controversies
Take, for example, a $66 jade egg that raised eyebrows and ire last summer. The egg’s promise, the site says, is “to increase sexual energy and pleasure.”
Goop writes that their “beauty guru/healer/inspiration/friend” Shiva Rose turned them on to jade eggs, calling it a “strictly guarded secret of Chinese royalty.”
When the egg first hit Goop’s site, the condemnation was swift.
“We’re never particularly surprised when our stories break the internet, but we were surprised by the reception of the jade egg, which stirred up a formidable debate about the practice,” Goop editors wrote in a piece that followed the egg’s release.
They then backed up their sexuality boosting stone ovum with letters from fans who said the practice has worked wonders for them.
Carol Queen, PhD, the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, co-founder of the Center for Sex & Culture, and author of “The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone,” calls the jade egg “too good to be true.”
“I’ve been horrified by a lot of her sex-related items because it doesn’t seem that either she or her doctor associates know enough about sexuality, the genitals, etc.” Queen told Healthline. “She also hasn’t chosen to find someone who does know a lot and, of course, if she did, she might have fewer things to sell.”
Queen says any attention to sexuality and sexual health is likely always a good thing, but the jade eggs — and many of Goop’s other products meant to promote sexual energy — are just a bridge too far.
“A person can be credulous when it comes to alternative claims, and if they don’t know enough about health and sexuality to begin with, they won’t be able to easily assess whether what they are hearing is correct information,” she said.
“Now, the placebo effect is a thing, and if a person believes that the item has a positive effect on their vaginal health, they are touching themselves to insert it, focusing on that area of the body, actually caring for its wellbeing, all this might have some good effects,” Queen added. “The ‘but’ of this statement has to do with the energy the stone supposedly possesses and that’s not a scientifically sound idea. It’s also about the egg itself. It won’t be a comfortable size for everyone. It can be difficult to insert if it’s too big for an individual. It can be even harder to take out. And stone isn’t always a safe material to insert into the body. It can have microfissures that might collect bacteria, for instance.”
More recently, a $135 coffee enema stirred the unease of many medical experts.
The enema, named the Implant-O-Rama, was listed as part of the brand’s “Detox Guide.” The other items listed in the guide (scrubs, saunas, and such) look to cleanse every pore, pocket, and pleat of your body, but the enema was the target of much indignation.
Enemas had a heyday in the alternative medicine world in the early 1900s, but as word spread of the potential dangers, the colon cleanses waned in popularity.
In fact, in 1919, the American Medical Association condemned the use of colon cleanses. More recently, the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology said in a statement that coffee enemas are “not merely useless but potentially dangerous.” The Mayo Clinic reports that coffee enemas have been to blame for several deaths.
Despite these warnings, enemas and colon cleanses have seen a robust return as the rise of “alternative” medicine increases in popularity.
Paltrow’s Goop is perhaps the most high-profile proponent of the practice, but they’re certainly not alone.
“In the past, we referred to lotions, potions, and elixirs with unproven efficacy as snake oils,” Zach Cordell, a registered dietitian nutritionist and an assistant professor of nutrition at Daytona State College in Florida, told Healthline. “We still have many of these around today, where people will use scientific sounding words, pick and choose what they want to believe, and it will bring people in. If you have a big soapbox to stand on, you are likely to have a larger payout.”
Despite numerous requests by Healthline for comments on this story, Goop officials did not make a representative from their organization available for an interview.
What’s Paltrow’s responsibility?
Alongside these controversial products are seemingly harmless items such as bath soaks and menstrual cups.
The latter is listed as an alternative to pads and tampons, “many of which are made with harmful chemicals,” the Goop site states.
“Her celebrity gets people in the door and perhaps the controversy does, too, but she’s just one very high-profile player in a field that has a long history [of] alternative therapies,” Queen said. “Not everything that can be described that way is problematic, nor is it likely that all the things sold on Goop are dangerous. But a customer might want to do a little due diligence on items they’ve never encountered, or ask themselves if there are ways such an item might be unsafe.”
But Donna Flagg, creator and founder of Lastics & Lastics Body, a body products company, says Goop and Paltrow are only a vessel, not a maker, for these products and their claims.
“Goop is essentially a retailer, a store. My opinion, with regard to Goop and Gwyneth, is that she is a target for one of two reasons, but more likely it’s some combination of both,” Flagg said. “One, she sells a lifestyle, but more importantly, a philosophy which challenges much of the establishment. That philosophy touches all aspects of our lives. That makes her a broader threat than, say, a company making moisturizers. Through her business, she exposes a lot of companies and their practices who do not want to be exposed.”
“Two, she is a famous, beautiful, and beloved woman,” Flagg continued. “This gives her tremendous influence among her audience, influence that is authentic, which no amount of money can buy.”
Flagg adds that these larger companies may try to discredit her influence by promoting the controversies.
“Generally, the responsibility of claims falls on whoever makes the product,” Flagg said. “Manufacturers formulate, test, and package the products. They are the ones who have the information about their product’s performance, not the retailer. A retailer is a customer of the manufacturers, and treated as such.”
For their part, Goop writes, “We test the waters so that you don’t have to. We will never recommend something that we don’t love, and think worthy of your time and your wallet. We value your trust above all things.”
However, their process for selecting items and retail partners isn’t transparent.
What do you do about Goop?
Cordell says Paltrow and Goop have the large platform to promote their health and wellness products, their body positive messages, and many of their claims because of Paltrow’s star and popularity.
And, he concedes, the film star and brand promoter does some great things with that stage.
“I am a critic of some of their practices but admit that some of Gwyneth’s approaches are valid. Her recommendation for body positivity is beneficial, and her approach to lifestyle change is helpful rather than diets, is accurate,” he said.
Still, Cordell says, some of the claims aren’t sound or even ethical, and that can leave a naïve audience susceptible to the “snake oils” of celebrity health claims.
“There are some truths and half-truths mixed in with product placement that promise health results that the science cannot back up,” Cordell says. “Along with that, Goop and other celebrity influencers skate a very dangerous line of giving medical advice that is not grounded in science, and providing goods with claims that are unsubstantiated by research.”
“If a medical provider such as a doctor, nurse, or dietitian were to promote practices with unproven scientific claims,” he said, “there could be consequences, such as coming under review by the licensing board, being sued for malpractice, or losing your license to practice.”
Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a Philadelphia-based weight-loss expert, agrees with Cordell’s assessment of the advice.
“In a direct sense, Goop is probably more irresponsible and misguided than dangerous,” Seltzer told Healthline “The cleanse information, which appears to be pretty prevalent [on their website] is ridiculous. There is no real science behind the ideas or claims, and I almost get the feeling Goop is encouraging self-diagnosis.”
Seltzer says there’s room for “alternative” approaches to healthcare and wellness in today’s modern medical environment, but that information should still be based on sound and vetted information. That, Seltzer says, isn’t coming from Goop.
“My issue is that people with no real experience or qualifications are giving advice on how to be healthy based on anecdotes and bad science,” he said
So how do you know what the balance is? How do you find a healthy point on the axis between modern medicine and fully alternative?
“You should become as educated as possible to make an informed decision,” Seltzer said. “If you don’t want to do that, find a practitioner you can trust and ask him or her. One of my favorite parts of my job is to explain to patients the different approaches to treatment, what the research says, and what are the risks and potential benefits of each avenue.”
“For the most part, however, the information is just ineffective and a waste of time to read or try to do,” he added. “I’d encourage anyone taking advice from Goop to run it by a knowledgeable, qualified healthcare professional.”
Readers of Goop’s articles and advice may find beneficial elements among their stories. After all, articles like “10 Brands That Really Care” promotes companies that give back or make their products from sustainable sources. “What to Eat When You Have the Flu” is a rundown of comforting foods almost no one could quibble with — chicken soup made the list.
But nestled among those innocuous articles are some claims that Queen, and skeptics like her, hope you’ll take with a grain of salt.
“Jade eggs, wasps’ nests, vaginal steaming, and coffee enemas are all somewhere on the continuum that goes from pretty bad for you to deeply bad for you,” Queen said. “I’d like to see her stick to selling yoga gear, personally.”