Charcoal doesn’t seem like something that would be beneficial to your health. After all, regular charcoal is a known carcinogen. But activated charcoal — a product that’s made from the byproduct of slow burned peat, wood, and coconut shells — is much different than barbecue charcoals. It’s treated with oxygen, leaving behind a porous, delicate substance that’s excellent at absorbing toxins on the inside and outside of the body. That’s why it’s being added to everything from face masks to water filters. But is activated charcoal all it’s cracked up to be?
What is Activated Charcoal?
Treated with oxygen, which opens up the millions of tiny pores between its carbon atoms, the end product -- activated charcoal -- is really porous. It has a chalky black texture and can be found in a number of forms from powders to pills to filters and sponges. It’s added to foods like juices, ice cream, even pizza, and cocktails. In Japan, a new jet black “Kuro Burger” even contains activated charcoal. It’s also added to facial masks and toothpaste. Not to mention that it’s used to filter water as well as purifying the air. Its porous nature and squid ink color have made it the ultimate health and beauty trend.
Legitimate Health Benefits and Uses
Like any trending ingredient, some of activated charcoal's uses are legitimate and some, not so much. Let’s take a closer look:
1. Filters water.
Activated charcoal water filters have been around for a while now and they’re great for cleaning up tap water. Activated charcoal can be used in its unprocessed form to remove contaminants like pesticides, heavy metals, and other impurities from your water. These Kishu Charcoal sticks ($18) do the trick very inexpensively for up to 4 months at a time.
2. Reduces gas and bloating.
A study published in the July 1986 edition of the Journal of Gastroenterology found that taking activated charcoal reduced gas and bloating in study participants. In this case, you would take it orally via a pill, and, according to Dr. Axe, dosing is 500 mg at the onset of gas or bloating. Talk to your doctor before consuming activated charcoal pills.
3. Whitens teeth.
Activated charcoal can remove stains from your teeth. But it is abrasive and can damage tooth enamel if its used on a daily basis, says Mia Stern, wellness coach and owner of Organically Thin. It’s recommended that you mix a pinch of activated charcoal powder with your toothpaste and then brush your teeth with it weekly. Let sit on your teeth for three minutes before rinsing well. Homnan activated charcoal powder ($8) and Fine Vine All Natural Teeth Whitening Powder ($20) are both great choices.
4. Adds vibrancy to skin.
Just as activated charcoal works at filtering water, it’s also fabulous for drawing impurities out of the skin, which makes for a great facial mask. Stern says it has an amazing ability to absorb chemicals, poisons, toxins, and even bacteria.. Boscia Luminizing Black Mask ($28) and Dermatique Purifying Black Mask ($18) are great choices.
5. Treats alcohol poisoning.
In the medical community, activated charcoal is regularly used as an alternative to stomach pumping to treat oral poisoning. The reason why it works is because it’s not digested, so it binds to the poison in the stomach and is excreted from the system without hurting the body. A study published in the 1986 edition of Human Toxicology talks about its use in reducing blood alcohol levels in dogs.
6. Cleans the air.
Activated charcoal has been shown to remove impurities from the air, making it an effective air purifier. It’s most beneficial at removing odors from your home so it’s best to place air purifiers in places where odors need to be neutralized. Try the Large Bamboo Charcoal Air Purifier Bag ($18), the Opul Activated Charcoal Odor Absorber ($11), or Barcoal Bamboo Charcoal Air Purifying Bags.
Inconclusive Health Benefits
Just as green tea ice cream isn’t a health food, it’s important to note that just because a product contains activated charcoal, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Avoid being fooled by unvalidated health claims.
- In fact, activated charcoal isn’t absorbed into the body. And in some cases, it binds to nutrients so that the body cannot absorb them, says Eric Lewis of Lewis Natural Health. This means that when it’s added to already healthy foods, like fresh juices, for example, it can actually reduce -- not enhance -- nutrient density.
- It only removes toxins that haven’t yet been digested. Activated charcoal got the reputation for being detoxifying because of its use in emergency rooms to remove poisons. But it stays in the digestive tract and can only remove poisons that haven’t yet been digested.
- It’s not a hangover cure. While activated charcoal can bind to alcohol that’s still in the digestive tract, once it’s been absorbed by the liver and causes dehydration, you’re out of luck. Alcohol has already done its damage, and you’re going to get a hangover the next day.
Potential Risks of Activated Charcoal
As mentioned above, activated charcoal is not a detoxifying agent that cures that body of all its ailments. If you’re taking it orally, and especially if you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor first. It can bind to nutrients in the body and cause deficiencies. It may also interact with some prescription drugs, so again, be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re already taking certain medications.
What You Should Know Before Taking Activated Charcoal
If you’re thinking about trying activated charcoal make sure you choose a product that comes from a natural, sustainable source like coconut shells. And again, remember that activated charcoal is not the same as the charcoal that’s used on your barbecue grill. In fact, regular charcoal is a carcinogen. Before making any changes to your lifestyle, talk to your primary care physician to see if it's right for you.
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