Activated Charcoal – Healthy or Hype?

Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal seems to be attracting attention in the health and beauty industries these days. Some say that it has the amazing ability to pull toxins out of the pores of the skin, and that it can absorb between 100 and 200 times it’s weight in impurities. What about the medical side of activated charcoal? Are there substantial health benefits, or is it just hype? Is it something that can be harmful? Since this topic was brought to my attention, I have had a lot of questions. So I started to dig for information. Here is what I have come up with…

What is activated charcoal?

First – let’s be clear about what charcoal is (yes, we are actually talking about a black lump of coal). The dictionary defines charcoal as “a porous black solid, consisting of an amorphous form of carbon, obtained as a residue when wood, bone or other organic matter is heated in the absence of air.”

How does charcoal become activated? The activation process involves the use of an activating agent (such as a gas) in combination with high temperatures to expand the charcoal’s surface area. Activation is not a process that happens in nature. Activated charcoal is not found naturally in food – it has to be manufactured.

What is it used for?

There are many unsubstantiated studies about health related uses of activated charcoal. Some of the uses being studied are: prevention of hangovers, reducing cholesterol, and to reduce gas. There seems to be considerable controversy about these uses, and very few (if any) solid reports about the results.

In the medical world, activated charcoal has been used to treat poisoning or drug overdose, although there are certain poisons that it is not effective for such as cyanide, lithium, alcohol, iron tablets, strong acids or bases. It prevents the poisons from being absorbed into the body through the stomach, because drugs and toxins bind to activated charcoal. This binding process is called ‘adsorption’ and it helps to remove toxins from the body. It is estimated that activated charcoal could reduce absorption of poisons or toxins by up to 60%. NOTE: Regarding toxins like drugs or poisons – it is absolutely imperative to seek the proper medical attention through a poison center or hospital emergency center and NOT try to use activated charcoal yourself as a cure.

As a beauty product or as an ingredient in beauty products, activated charcoal is touted as being a miracle worker of sorts. The premise that dirt, impurities and toxins will stick to activated charcoal like a magnet is the reason for including it in beauty products. It can be found in soaps, face masks, skin cleansers, and maybe even in some toothpaste. Most of these products probably have other high quality ingredients that have other benefits and these products do not totally rely on the magic of activated charcoal. According to what I have read, some people swear that brushing their teeth with activated charcoal actually whitens their teeth. (This is not a theory I will be testing any time soon!) Be aware that any whitening agent used on teeth can, over a period of time, weaken tooth enamel.

Interestingly, activated charcoal also has numerous industrial applications, such as being used in water filters.

How safe is it?

This is an important question! Some sources say that activated charcoal is a harmless substance – odorless, tasteless and non-toxic. According to the Mayo Clinic activated charcoal is not something that should be used without the proper advice of a Doctor, a poison control center or hospital emergency staff. The Mayo Clinic has very detailed information about using activated charcoal including proper use, interactions, and risks.

When necessary and when administered by a knowledgeable health care professional or health care facility, activated charcoal is generally thought to be safe. The key word is ‘knowledgeable’. Here are just a few of the risks and interactions of taking activated charcoal as a supplement or as an ingredient in daily beverages like smoothies:

  • Using activated charcoal in a smoothie or as an internal detox cleanse might not be a good idea, particularly if it is used daily. It can absorb a lot of liquid and leave a person dehydrated and constipated.
  • It can decrease the absorption of some nutrients. This makes it a poor choice for people who are on very limited nutritional diets or whose nutritional intake may be low – including many seniors.
  • It can react negatively with medications used to treat constipation, as it can wreak havoc with the body’s electrolyte balance causing health issues.
  • It could minimize or stop the absorption of some drugs such as Acetaminophen, Digoxin, Tricyclic antidepressants and Theophylline

If a person is using skin products and/or cosmetics that contain activated charcoal, and they are not being ingested – they are likely considered safe. But be aware: anything that is put onto the skin is absorbed into the body, as the skin is the body’s largest organ.

One final note – activated charcoal should always be used in a safe manner, guided by a knowledgeable professional. If there is an emergency involving poisons or drug toxicity ALWAYS call 911 or go directly to the nearest Hospital Emergency.


Informational Resources:

Mayo Clinic

The Globe and Mail



Copyright © 2015 Cathy Ormon – All Rights Reserved