Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine obtained from the Chinese water snake Enhydris chinensis. Although it is still sold in traditional Chinese pharmacies as a legitimate remedy for pain and inflammation, especially in rheumatoid arthritis and other joint conditions, in the United States the term snake oil is used to denote a product that is misleading, worthless, or fraudulent.
Despite this perjorative use of the term snake oil, studies show that the substance likely has real physiological and medicinal benefits. Snake oil from the Chinese water snake contains 20% eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is the highest concentration found in nature (in contrast, salmon oil contains about 16-18% EPA.)
EPA is one of the precursor molecules found in the prostaglandin pathway and is highly anti-inflammatory. The EPA found in Chinese snake oil can be absorbed through the skin.
So, if snake oil is rich in EPA and highly anti-inflammatory, how did snake oil get it’s bad reputation? Perhaps it was a situation not all that different than today’s battle for market share between Apple and Microsoft.
Snake oil was first brought into the United States by Chinese laborers working on railroad gangs building the transcontinental railway. It was provided to fellow American and European railroad workers as a salve for aching joints and muscles and likely was effective in bringing relief.
This provoked the ire of travelling patent medicine salesmen, who were also hawking completely unregulated remedies for various ailments and likely sensed encroachment on their profits.
The new snake oil product was quickly decried as worthless and ineffective compared to the existing formulas by those with an interest in having it be so, a claim bolstered in part by the fact that new snake oil batches were made with rattlesnake oil, which contains only 8% EPA.
The Chinese laborers either had no interest or ability in combating these claims and as a result of this negative publicity campaign, the use of patent medicines flourished and snake oil became… well, snake oil.