Activated charcoal is the poster child for a slew of natural health remedies. You’ve probably seen it slapped on the label for everything from teeth whitening and deodorant to face masks and even hangover cures.
So what is this magic ingredient and can it possibly live up to the hype?
Let’s take a look at the benefits of activated charcoal and if it actually works.
Activated charcoal looks like a fine black powder. It’s typically made from more natural food sources like coconut shells and olive pits or other, nonfood things like petroleum coke, peat, sawdust, bone char, and coal.
Charcoal becomes “activated” when it’s processed at super high temperatures that modify its form, making its pores smaller and surface area larger.
The result? Charcoal that’s more porous (lots of little holes in it) than regular charcoal.
Activated charcoal is NOT the same stuff that you use to fire up your grill. That stuff is called charcoal briquette, which has the same base materials but has not been properly activated by high temps. Plus, charcoal briquette also has some toxic chemicals that you definitely don’t want near your teeth or face.
Activated charcoal goes to work by keeping toxins and chemicals in the gut confined, stopping their absorption.
That porous consistency that we mentioned actually has a negative electrical charge — making it attract positively charged molecules like toxins and gases — helping it catch and trap those nasties in your gut.
Since you bod doesn’t absorb activated charcoal, it transports the toxins on its surface out of the body via poop — clever!
Emergency poisoning treatment
Since activated charcoal can bind a range of drugs and toxins, stopping their absorption into the body, it can be used as an anti-poison treatment or help remedy drug overdoses.
Activated charcoal shouldn’t be considered a “go-to” method for anti-poison and drug overdose treatments though, since it’s not effective in all cases. It’s best to consider its use here on a case-by-case basis instead (and always administered by a medical professional).
Reduces fish odor syndrome symptoms
People with trimethylaminuria (TMAU) — aka fish odor syndrome — can experience unwanted body aromas like that of a rotting fish.
While most can transform fishy smells into, well, nonfishy smells before it leaks out in urine, those with TMAU cannot. This is due to a lack of a key enzymes that makes this process possible. As a result, the fishy smell gathers up and comes out in breath, sweat and urine.
More studies are needed, but some research so far suggests that activated charcoal’s porous surface may help bind those potent compounds, helping with the odor.
Promotes kidney function
It’s possible activated charcoal can help promote kidney function thanks to its filtering superpowers — aka trapping undigested toxins and chemicals. A 2014 study that gave rats with kidney disease an oral activated charcoal dose found decreases in intestinal damage and inflammation.
An older 2010 human study also found giving activated charcoal to patients with chronic kidney disease helped improve their kidney function. While multiple studies have shown a link, more research still needs to be done to know for sure.
Maybe help reduce cholesterol levels
Activated charcoal looks like it may help lower cholesterol levels since it can bind cholesterol and bile acids that contain cholesterol in the stomach. This may help block cholesterol absorption in the body.
While the research is promising, most of it was done in the 1980s, so new studies are needed to validate the link here.
Much like activated charcoal traps and carries away toxins from the gut, it has a similar effect with a number of unsavory things found in water like, toxins, viruses, drugs, fungus, and chemicals, making it a useful way to filter water.
In fact, a study done in 2015 found that water filtration systems that used carbon pulled out about 100 percent of the fluoride in 32 samples of unfiltered water after 6 months of installation.
Some studies have found that activated charcoal may help lower gas after a post-gassy meal (read: yesterday’s chili). Plus, it may even help improve the stench of gas. However, not all studies found this to be the case and once again, more research is needed.
A 2017 review of studies on activated charcoal for diarrhea found that it may prevent diarrhea inducing drugs and bacteria from being absorbed into the body by once again trapping them on its hole-y, textured surface.
It’s worth pointing out that researchers also noted that activated charcoal for diarrhea has less side effects (like drowsiness and constipation) than antidiarrheal meds.
Tooth whitening and oral care
Oodles of teeth-whitening products have activated charcoal these days, many of which say to have several benefits, like antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and detoxifying.
Activated charcoal’s famous toxin-absorbing properties may come into play here, but there’s no meaningful research behind this yet.
A 2017 review determined there was not enough data to verify the safety or usefulness of activated charcoal as an oral health player or teeth whitener. It’s also worth pointing out that the American Dental Association cautions nondentist-approved charcoal powder as too harsh and may lead to enamel erosion.
Activated charcoal is occasionally used as a hangover remedy. While using it with alcohol may reduce blood alcohol levels, its impact on hangovers have yet to be researched.
Using activated charcoal on the skin is hyped as an effective treatment for some skin conditions like acne and even bug bites. This is because it might absorb bacteria and toxins in the skin like it can in the body. But before you buy charcoal masks or scrubs, this is mostly based on observational findings right now. We need researchers to come through on this one too.
You can find a bunch of activated charcoal deodorants all over the internet. It may absorb that pesky armpit aroma, extra moisture and can possibly control humidity levels, at least on a micro-level.
Lots of traditional medicine practitioners around the globe deploy activated charcoal powder (made from coconut shells) to remedy soft tissue issues, like skin infections, since it may have an antibacterial effect (by absorbing dangerous microbes from sores or injuries).
We still need the researchers to take a close look at this area though.
Activated charcoal is largely believed to be safe, with adverse reactions being uncommon and hardly ever severe. Of course, there may be some side effects, the most common being nausea and vomiting.
Also, activated charcoal does have the potential to worsen symptoms for people with variegate porphyria, an uncommon genetic disease affecting the gut, skin, and nervous system.
It should also be pointed out that activated charcoal may lower the absorption of some medications. Those who are taking meds should definitely talk to their doc before using activated charcoal.
Activated charcoal supplements are available in pill or powder forms. When using activated charcoal as a powder, you can mix it with water or nonacidic juice. Always make sure you’re following dosage instructions on any activated charcoal products you use.
In the use of activated charcoal for drug overdose or poisoning, seek medical help immediately.
If a medical professional decides activated charcoal should be used in a medical emergency like an overdose, a dosage of 50 to 100 grams can be administered by a medical professional, preferably within an hour of the overdose. Children usually get a smaller dose of 10 to 25 grams.
For other situations, dosages vary from 1.5 grams (like for treatment of fishy odor disease) to 4 to 32 grams per day (like for lowering cholesterol and supporting kidney function in end-stage kidney disease).
Activated charcoal is a crazy little black powder with a slew of uses. It’s possible it can help with things like lessening gas and lowering cholesterol, treating poisoning, and possibly promote kidney function.
The jury is still out on the research though. Right now, studies backing up these proposed benefits are either dated or a little on the flimsy side, while some of the cosmetic benefits are not yet supported by science.
With that in mind, you can still give activated charcoal a try for cosmetic purposes like teeth whitening and sheet masking, but check in with your doc before using it to treat medical conditions.