Activated charcoal—more than likely, you have a friend or family member who swears by its magical properties and isn’t shy about letting you know why. It whitens your teeth! It clears your complexion! And it’s even good enough to eat! Does it live up to the hype, though? And is it even safe? The cure-all claims aren’t without controversy or misleading information, so delving into the specifics to differentiate fact from fiction is important before deciding how to use activated charcoal, if you should at all.
So what is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal differs from regular old charcoal in how it’s processed, which makes it more porous. The result is a substance that creates a negative electrical charge, allowing the charcoal to bind with toxins and chemicals. Before becoming the latest health and beauty trend, activated charcoal’s primary use was as a treatment in cases of poisoning and drug overdose. When taken orally, it helps the body to rid itself of certain contaminants. A study published in the Journal of Toxicology notes that activated charcoal is most effective when taken within an hour of ingestion of the toxin (and that it needs to be administered by a medical professional). So, what are its proponents’ other health claims? Curing an upset stomach is one, and limited research suggests that when combined with magnesium oxide, it can be effective. But there’s a catch: A 2004 study published in Pediatrics found that ingestion of activated charcoal can cause vomiting as well. Another potential benefit involves treating cholestasis (a disruption in bile production that affects some pregnancies), but studies so far have been very limited. The same can be said for lowering cholesterol. While a 1989 study showed potential benefits, other research has been inconclusive. Activated charcoal has also been touted as a hangover cure, but the data currently available doesn’t back this claim up. In fact, charcoal can’t effectively bind to alcohol, which makes it totally ineffective in this application. A study published in Human Toxicology notes that subjects who drank two alcoholic drinks had the same test results whether they took activated charcoal or not.
To detox or not to detox?
Activated charcoal has also been touted as a systemic detoxifying agent, but this is disputed by healthcare professionals. In fact, ingesting it can be harmful to your body. For one, its absorbent properties can make medications (including birth control and acetaminophen) ineffective. Other ingestion risks include colon inflammation and, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, it has even been linked to lung infections. Detoxes in general are discouraged by doctors, who say the average person’s kidneys and liver do a great job ridding the body of toxins all on their own.
Pitch black for your pearly whites?
One of the most popular claims about activated charcoal is that it whitens teeth. But does charcoal toothpaste actually work? In a piece for The Daily Beast, American Dental Association spokesperson Kimberly Harms, DDS, says there’s no clinical evidence to support this claim, adding that “like any abrasive, we’re worried about the effects on the gums and enamel on the teeth. We don’t know about the safety and effectiveness of it.” According to a study presented at the Academy of General Dentistry’s 2015 annual meeting, charcoal could actually become embedded in the cracks of your teeth, causing further damage and discoloration. Some dental professionals have endorsed Curarox’s activated carbon Black is White toothpaste, which features a lower level of charcoal and reduced chemical agents and plastic particles. It’s not proven to make your teeth whiter, but apparently it won’t inflict any damage, either.
Is scrubbing it on such a good idea?
Charcoal is also being hailed by many wellness and beauty brands as a means of achieving a clearer complexion. Advocates say using it as a face mask draws dirt, bacteria, and chemicals to the skin’s surface, earning you a healthier glow. However, many dermatologists claim there isn’t enough published evidence to back this up yet. The good thing is that even if its skin-clearing claims haven’t been proven, activated charcoal won’t harm your skin because it’s an inert substance. So give it a go as a gentle cleanser and decide for yourself if it lives up to the hype.
You read that right. Many chefs and nutrition advocates are claiming that activated charcoal is good for you to eat, and it’s being used as an ingredient in pizza, waffles, coffee, ice cream and more. Healthcare professionals say this is akin to using activated charcoal as a detoxing agent, so it could be harmful as a source of food, potentially siphoning important nutrients from your body (along with the aforementioned risk of interfering with medications). There’s also the real (albeit rare) risk of intestinal blockages when activated charcoal is consumed in large doses. In an interview with the Washington Post, Angela Lemond, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that for those who aren’t on medication and want try activated charcoal in their food, the key is moderation: “When [people] start thinking something is good for you, they’re putting it in everything. All of it, it does add up. You have to be careful.”
The Bottom Line
In the end, there simply isn’t enough research to show that activated charcoal has the positive benefits its proponents are touting, so until we have more sufficient data, a cautionary approach is recommended. Feel free to experiment, but be cognizant of the potential risks, and when it doubt, be sure to consult your healthcare provider for additional information.