I can’t believe I’m really writing a science column about why people shouldn’t consume laundry detergent. It’s disheartening to see our youth so swayed by memes and internet culture, but my ethics won’t let me stand idly by, so I’m here to present you with the real, scary reasons you should not eat soap.
However, it’s not totally weird that you might want to try one of those little pods. They’re colorful, aesthetically pleasing and they smell like meadows and springtime. According to neuroanthropologist John Allen, candy is made with bright colors to attract children, and the association of those colors with sweet food never really goes away. Tide Pods also soft, squishy and bite-sized, suggesting it is something like a Fruit Gusher that you can pop in your mouth and chew.
The hysteria supposedly began in 2015 when the satirical publication the Onion posted a perspective piece from a child who promised to consume a Tide Pod. Last March, CollegeHumor posted a similar video. More recently, jokes about eating the cute little blobs have appeared on social media, including ideas about putting them on pizza or arranged nicely on dinner plates. Even Sen. Chuck Schumer said, “I don’t know why they make them look so delicious.”
They might look mouthwatering, but they will literally burn your mouth instead. Do not eat them. In the first half of January alone, poison control centers dealt with 39 cases of teenagers who intentionally consumed the detergent, according to the New York Times. For comparison, there were only 53 cases in all of 2017.
According to Dr. Diane Calello, medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, the pods contain more than just soap. They also have a variety of highly concentrated chemicals, covered in a dissolvable wrapping.
“What we’ve seen is when children or adults bite into these things, that moisture-sensitive membrane basically just disintegrates and the contents explode inside your mouth,” Calello said via phone to the New York Times. “This is not something I would put anywhere near someone’s mouth.”
The chemicals can cause severe burns to the mouth, esophagus and respiratory tract. In extreme cases, some very young and very old patients with cognitive issues have died as a result of eating the pods.
According to pediatric physician Jana Anderson, regular liquid detergent would cause a mild upset stomach, but the pods are far more potent. In addition to a very alkaline (basic) chemical, depending on the type of pod, it will also contain softener or bleach.
If the pod is somehow swallowed instead of being spit and coughed out, it can result in chemical burns along the lining of the stomach, which is when the body rejects the detergent. This may result in vomiting. If the detergent passes through the rest of the digestive tract, it can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal stress. Some of the chemicals can affect the central nervous system and cause drowsiness.
Most people gasp when the pod breaks open, which causes some of the liquid to be inhaled into the lungs. According to Anderson, they can also inhale the chemicals by aspirating on their own vomit (doesn’t this sound fun, guys?).
Ingestion of the pod can be fatal if it gets into the lungs and causes acute respiratory distress. According to the American Association for Poison Control Centers, ingestion can also lead to seizures and comas.
The chemical burns can cause esophageal scarring, which results in the esophagus tightening and puts you at a higher risk for food impactions and choking.
Tide has tried to curb some of this disturbing behavior by releasing a statement to USA Today explaining, “Our laundry pods are a highly concentrated detergent meant to clean clothes. They should not be played with, whatever the circumstance is, even if meant as a joke.”
If you do decide to try your hand at Darwin’s dangerous little game of natural selection, you should drink water to dilute the chemicals and call poison control immediately. You might not die, but you should watch for symptoms like burning sensations, vomiting, severe drowsiness or wheezing and be prepared to go to the hospital immediately.
In other words, DO NOT EAT TIDE PODS. This really shouldn’t even be a thought that crosses your mind.
Rachael Snodgrass is an A&E editor. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelReneeee.