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A scientist reviews products in the ‘Sharper Image’ catalog, hilarity ensues

The 2018 “Holiday Special Edition” catalogue from Sharper Image is here! Who can resist browsing through their annual assortment of unusual items that you never knew you needed?

Sharper Image has always been a reliable source for outrageously overpriced tech gear, and this year is no exception. So, as a scientist, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on some of the products I came across in the Sharper Image catalogue.

Sharper Image, Duller Mind

For example, you can purchase The Photo Vault, an extravagant $140 32GB USB memory stick.

And because you have more money than brain cells, the catalogue suggests you purchase two or more to back up large photo archives.

Alternatively, you can buy the same size USB memory stick for 7 bucks on Amazon and write “Photo Vault” on it.

For those of you who think a screwdriver and bottle opener would come in handy when your Hummer breaks down on the highway, Sharper Image offers the 8-In-1 Auto Emergency Tool. It requires an AAA battery, which is ironic because you can join AAA for about the same price and simply call them to help you out of a jam.

But if you just gotta have this overly ambitious key chain ornament, avoid carrying it in your pocket or you’ll risk recreating Andy Bernard’s scrotum tear.

‘Fun’ for all ages

Sharper Image also offers a wide variety of toys that kids will enjoy playing with once, maybe twice. In the ongoing effort to ensure children get zero exercise and have no friends, Sharper Image is proud to present The Kids Motorized Personal Transporter.

Doing their part to shatter outmoded gender stereotypes, Sharper Image is offering these transporters in blue (with skulls and flames) or pink (with flowers and butterflies).

Because *everybody* knows girls like pink, and boys like blue. It’s state law.

These are the types of products we expect from Sharper Image, but the company is taking great strides this year to out-Goop Gwyneth Paltrow with an impressive array of snake oil merchandise. Here’s a closer look at three of the health and fitness products that the company is trying to hoodwink consumers into purchasing.


First, let’s take a look at Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). With techno-babble and acronyms like that used to describe the Six Pack Abs Stimulator, who wouldn’t be impressed? You can feel your abs tightening just trying to digest that jargon. The gadget even looks like six pack abs, but so does this shirt, and the shirt works better and faster.

The use of electricity to stimulate muscles is an old discovery, first made by Luigi Galvani in the late 18th century when he was startled to find that electric currents can reanimate the legs of a dead frog. Today, EMS is clinically used to treat patients who suffer from a muscle defect or injury; however, claims that it will give you six pack abs, as implied by the Sharper Image product, are completely unsubstantiated. According to the FDA, which regulates these potentially dangerous contraptions, “Using these devices alone will not give you “six-pack” abs. Applying electrical current to muscles may cause muscles to contract. Stimulating muscles repeatedly with electricity may eventually result in muscles that are strengthened and toned to some extent but will not, based on currently available data, create a major change in your appearance without the addition of diet and regular exercise.”

If you don’t want to risk electrocuting your muscles into shape, then how about freezing the fat away? Enter The Ultimate Fat Freezer, which harnesses the frigid power of the Snow Miser to disintegrate your fat cells. Starting at $130 (the single-use safety cloth wipes you must apply to prevent freezer burn or other injuries (!) are sold separately), this is a hefty price for a glorified ice pack.

It’s also worth noting that this product seems suspiciously similar to the shock shorts that SciBabe recently wrote about, too.

According to the product description, “The cooling process decreases fat cell temperature to naturally eliminate them from the body.”

First, there is nothing “natural” about turning a section of your body into Hoth in order to sculpt it. This is a wholly unnatural technique known among professionals as cryolipolysis, and it is based on the idea that fat cells are more sensitive to the cold than skin cells. When faced with the cold, fat cells self-destruct and your immune system cleans up the mess.

You can’t use this technique to lose a 100 pound beer gut, or even a 10 pound beer gut, but it could be used by a professional to help you “sculpt” a problem area on your body. Since 2010, the FDA has cleared the use of CoolSculpting for certain body parts that may need contouring, such as unshapely thighs, love handles, or a double chin. Fat freezing may produce a modest improvement (at best, reducing fat up to 20-25% in the problem area), but is best left to the ice sculpting professionals to administer properly or you may end up shaped like a preschooler’s ceramics project.

In terms of DIY fat freezing, many doctors are strongly opposed to the idea because of safety and efficacy issues. A key difference between the equipment doctors use and this home unit is a vacuum that helps target and freeze the problem area more effectively. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green does not hide her disdain for them: “These at-home freezing machines don’t work at all.”

If these two options fail, perhaps you’d like to see what’s behind door #3?

… Light?

Sharper Image claims that their Professional Fat Reduction System – a belt of red LED lights – will “open the pores of your fat cells.”

You must open your wallet to the tune of $400 first.

The science goes back to the use of low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) to destroy fat cells in patients where surgery is not a viable option. In this case, the heat from the laser ruptures fat cells, which are then deposed by your custodial immune system. In a small clinical trial, subjects who had their waist lasered lost nearly an inch off their hips, but gained 50% of it back two weeks after the treatment. At least one study has shown that this wavelength of light does not penetrate beyond 1mm of skin, which would not come close to the fatty layer; if so, how fat reduction occurs remains a mystery. A more recent review of LLLT sums up the current state of affairs: “Studies demonstrating the efficacy of LLLT as a stand-alone procedure [for fat reduction] are still inadequate. Moreover, further studies are necessary to identify the mechanism of action.” Since no one knows how LLLT might be working, we have no idea what long-term side effects may arise from zapping your body with these lights.

Even if this magic belt of lights did work, you’d look pretty strange with a localized trench of melted fat in the middle of your belly. As with fat freezing, if you are interested in trying LLLT, it is best to have a professional attempt to sculpt your problem areas.

Importantly, none of these non-invasive techniques for weight loss or fat reduction have been subjected to rigorous clinical trials or longitudinal studies. The studies are limited by small sample sizes fraught with confounding variables, and if any improvements were observed, they were modest at best and did not work for everyone.

At present, there is not enough evidence to support the claims, nor have adequate studies been done to determine if fat stays off or whether adverse effects emerge over the long term. Research into noninvasive fat removal is an exciting and worthy endeavor, but it is premature to market untested home versions to consumers who are not trained in their operation.

Check out Bill’s book Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs,
and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are

More lights…

On a related note, Sharper Image also offers a product called World’s First At-Home Professional LED Lip Therapy Device, which is basically a pacifier of lights claimed to give you plumper lips. Curiously, the same LED lights that they claim will help you to lose fat if applied to your waist will help you gain fat if applied to your lips!

Things that make you go hmmm…

The pseudoscience runs strong with Sharper Image this year, as they offer a bevy of largely unproven, ineffective, and potentially dangerous shortcuts to weight loss and body toning. The boring truth is that a sensible diet and plenty of exercise work best. The products above won’t help you burn calories, but will burn a sizeable hole in your wallet…and perhaps your dignity, too.

Bill Sullivan is the Showalter Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of PLEASED TO MEET ME: The Hidden Forces Shaping Who We Are, available August 6, 2019 from National Geographic Books. Follow Bill on Twitter @wjsullivan.




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