From it's start as a toxin-binding substance in case of accidental toxicity, activated charcoal has come a long way! You can now find it on the shelves in many different products, from capsules to reduce hangovers and ease upset stomachs to toothpaste and deodorant. The newest health obsession with activated charcoal has even found its way into food and drink, but it’s more than just a natural black food coloring.
Charcoal is a residue that’s left over from slow burning of plant or animal materials after all the water has been removed. It can be made from wood, bamboo, coconut shells, sawdust, and other organic substances. Its fabled detoxifying properties come from the tiny spaces that are created in the charcoal when it is exposed to high heats or is activated chemically through a process called physical activation. This “activation” makes the charcoal more porous, but you won’t get the same effect from taking charcoal from your barbecue grill after it’s been heated.
When charcoal is exposed to high heat, it forms micro-pores that increase its surface area exponentially: just 1 gram of activated charcoal can increase its surface area to nearly the size of a football field. These pores allow the carbon to absorb gases and liquids. It was (and still is) used medically to treat cases of accidental toxin ingestion when the undesired substance is still present in the stomach, and it is used in many industrial processes for filtering, air purification, decaffeination, sewage treatment, and more. The micro-pores and its extreme sponge-like ability to latch onto substances has made it an important tool for which every household can now find a use!
Here are 3 ways activated charcoal can work for you:
#1 Medical Benefits
- Relieves gas or upset stomach: Taking activated charcoal capsules may help bind with problem-causing foods and reduce symptoms of bloating and gas. There are two studies (here & here) which have found activated charcoal to relieve gas.
- May reduce cholesterol: Activated charcoal given to patients with high cholesterol levels found that bad cholesterol (LDL) levels decreased, while good cholesterol (HDL) increased. (3)
- Improves kidney function: Patients with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis who ingested activated charcoal and changed their diet to a low-protein diet saw a decrease in their blood markers and decreased their need for dialysis. (4)
- May reduce symptoms of hangovers from alcohol: This is purely anecdotal, but there may be some benefit from ingesting activated charcoal to counter the effects of alcohol. However, since alcohol is absorbed quickly, it may not have much of an effect, and we don’t have enough evidence to tell us if you should take it before, during, or after alcohol consumption. (If you’re looking for something that can help with hangover symptoms and decrease the toxic load that occurs from drinking, look into DHM instead.)
(Remember that activated charcoal binds and absorbs everything; so if you’re taking it orally or eating it in your food, it will interfere with the medications (including birth control), vitamins, or supplements you take. Topical use, such as in toothpastes and deodorants and face products, doesn't appear to cause absorption issues and are discussed below).
For these benefits, activated charcoal capsules work best.
#2 Hygiene Uses
Supporters of activated charcoal for toothpaste believe that it can detoxify bacteria and toxins lurking deep within the teeth and can whiten your teeth. There hasn’t been a lot of evidence to support it, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence which says you can get whiter teeth.
Charcoal is an abrasive substance, which may lead to the removal of stains on the surface, but this same abrasive texture can also wear down your enamel if used too frequently. Many charcoal toothpastes don’t contain fluoride, so it isn’t something that’s routinely recommended by dentists at this point—but so many natural health enthusiasts have spoken out about activated charcoal in toothpaste that even Colgate listened!
Still, there are so many people that find that it’s working for them, so if you’re interested in giving it a try, you can try this charcoal toothpaste with fluoride from Colgate, or this fluoride-free formula from Tom’s of Maine.
Much like some people use bags of activated charcoal as a natural deodorizer (great for fabric and non-fabric alike, especially that vintage box or sweater), activated charcoal can do wonders as a deodorant.
Not only does it pull everything into it like dirt and oil, it can also help keep you dry because it absorbs sweat. It won’t keep you from sweating like an anti-perspirant would, but it could be the product which helps get you from standard antiperspirants to more natural types.
- Body Soap
For a deep clean or to keep skin clear of blemishes, consider a bar soap like this one from Yes to Tomatoes.
- Face Scrubs and Masks
Activated charcoal has taken the beauty world by storm because of its amazing pore-cleaning abilities. You can find activated charcoal in cleansers, masks, face scrubs, and even in some makeup primers.
Since most activated charcoal users are seeking clear pores, activated charcoal is often mixed with other products meant to help with cleaning pores, so be sure to read the label and make sure you don’t end up with a product containing extras you may not need. If you do need a little boost to help with blackheads, you can try this line of charcoal products combined with salicylic acid by Biore.
#3 Culinary Uses
For natural black food coloring, squid ink dye is being replaced quickly with restaurants and bakeries using activated charcoal. You can find it in ice cream in some trendy places, and some chefs use it to give foods a smokey taste.
You’ll find that your teeth will be temporarily blackened by eating goods made with activated charcoal; and while many people will tell you it will be a health boon to you, it’s still hard to say. Remember, eating food that contains activated charcoal is the same as ingesting it directly, so it will inhibit medication absorption as well.
Safety and Side Effects
If you are on medications, please consult your doctor before taking activated charcoal orally.
Activated charcoal products should be limited for children and pregnant or lactating women (who need all the nutrients they can get). People with slow movement of the intestines should also avoid activated charcoal. (5)
Side effects from oral consumption may include black stool and constipation, and some rare side effects are dehydration, a slowing/blockage of the intestinal tract, and the possibility of aspirating it into the lungs (regurgitating into the lungs).
Activated charcoal is helpful in many areas of our lives, and it seems like we are coming up with more and more uses for this natural by-product. You may find that once you’ve used it, you don’t look back.
1. Jain NK, Patel VP, Pitchumoni CS. Efficacy of activated charcoal in reducing intestinal gas: a double-blind clinical trial. Am J Gastroenterol. 1986;81(7):532-535.
2. Mann, Nirmal S., and Eddie C. Cheung. “Effect Of Activated Charcoal On Lactulose Induced Breath Hydrogen In Patients With Complaint Of Excessive Gas.” American Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 98, 2003, doi:10.1111/j.1572-0241.2003.07944.x.
3. Kuusisto P, Vapaatalo H, Manninen V, Huttunen JK, Neuvonen PJ. Effect of activated charcoal on hypercholesterolaemia. Lancet. 1986;2(8503):366-367. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(86)90054-1
4. Musso C G, Michelangelo H, Reynaldi J, Martinez B, Vidal F, Quevedo M, Parot M, Waisman G, Algranati L. Combination of oral activated charcoal plus low protein diet as a new alternative for handling in the old end-stage renal disease patients. Saudi J Kidney Dis Transpl 2010;21:102-4
5. “Activated Charcoal.” Https://Www.rxlist.com/activated_charcoal/Supplements.htm.