Coco Loko, a new product containing chocolate and energy-drink ingredients all ground into a powder, was made to be snorted. According to the website, doing so gives the user a "steady rush of euphoric energy and motivation that is great for party goers to dance the night away without a crash."
Not surprisingly, doctors are warning against using the product—which is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because it is marketed as a supplement, not as a food or drug—because they don't know how the human body will respond to snorting the ingredients in the powder. "It sounds like a terrible idea," says Dr. Richard Lebowitz, an associate professor at New York University's Department of Otolaryngology.
But chocolate powder isn't the only potentially dangerous thing to snort. According to Lebowitz, any type of powder can cause adverse reactions to a person's nasal passage. "You have to really look at effects on the nose itself, not just the effect of the medication."
Snorting appeals to some people because taking medicine through the nose is a fast way to deliver drugs—legal and otherwise—into the bloodstream. "Things are very well absorbed through the nose," Lebowitz says. "They aren't broken down by the stomach, so it's a great way to get into the system."
But the human nose is not designed to snort powder. Snorting powder of any kind can lead to inflammation of the nasal lining, infection in the lungs and blockages of respiratory tracts and nasal airways. This occurs because powders are particle materials and can often have additional materials mixed in them that cause further deterioration, Lebowitz says.
Some drugs can safely delivered through the the nasal passages. Nasal sprays and other inhalation solutions—which are regulated by the FDA—are not as risky to the nose because they contain liquid, which is gentler on the naturally moist nose, Lebowitz says. "It's a liquid, so the nose doesn't see it as a foreign body and absorbs it better."
The damaging potential side effects don't stop some people from snorting all kinds of powders. Throughout his career, Lebowitz has seen patients who have snorted illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or prescription medication like Oxycodone or Ritalin. He says it's not often the drug itself that causes problems when snorted: it's extra stuff added to the drugs that do the real nasal harm. A person who often snorts something like cocaine can get holes in their septum or crusted skin inside their nasal passage, often because of a powdered material that is added to the drug. Impurities added to cocaine can include powdered laundry detergent, caffeine and laxatives, according to the American Addiction Centers.
"The inside of someone's nose who has done a lot of cocaine is a big mess," Lebowitz says. "It's more from the impurities."
Destroyed or permanently damaged nasal airways have long-term consequences, because the nose filters air as it goes into the lungs. "The nose conditions the air you breathe in, in addition to cleaning it," Lebowitz says. "If it's not doing its job, the air you breathe into your lungs isn't as good for you."
Nick Anderson, owner of Legal Lean Co., which makes Coco Loko, says snorting the powder is safe as long as people follow the product guidelines: be age 18 or older, and don't snort more than the 350 milligrams in each packet.
"If anybody is concerned, I just say, do things in moderation," Anderson says. To health professionals cautioning against Coco Loko, he says: "They just gotta do more research. Things aren't always what they seem."
Coco Loko isn't the only recent powder to hit pop culture. In the latest season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, prison inmates decide to snort coffee in an effort to stay awake. (It doesn't go well: they end up violently ill and unable to sleep.) Lebowitz does not know anyone in real life who has snorted coffee, but says it would be more useful to "just drink a Red Bull."