A version of this article previously appeared on Here & There Collective.
These days, activated charcoal is the darling on the wellness scene–finding its way into everything from whitening toothpaste and detoxifying skincare products, to beverages, baked goods, and ice creams. It’s been around for a long time, of course, but its use in such a wide range of products is pervasive, as of late.
Purported to bring users clear skin, sparkling smiles, and unparalleled “cleansing” benefits, it certainly sounds like the cure-all we’ve all been waiting for.
But do these claims have any credibility? Or is activated charcoal just another snake oil scheme?
The Department of Health is enforcing a ban on activated charcoal in foods in New York City per a rule instituted by the FDA, so I’m also left to wonder: is it even safe to eat?
So, let’s break it down.
What is activated charcoal?
Technically known as activated carbon, activated charcoal is a highly porous substance that attracts and holds chemicals inside it.
Made from various organic substances with high carbon contents, such as coconut husks, peat, coal, or bone char, it is first heated at a high temperature to become charcoal, and then oxidized–which is how the substance becomes “activated.” The activation process is what creates its massive surface area, creating numerous pores that just love attracting chemicals.
Its propensity for sucking up chemicals, much like a sponge, landed it onto the medical scene in the 19th century, and it has been used for medicinal purposes ever since. It has been used for the treatment of accidental poisoning, drug overdoses, and to treat the kid who drank too much at his first frat party in college.
For the same reason, activated charcoal is also used as a filter and deodorizer; maybe you have a countertop compost container that utilizes a carbon filter, or you might have a carbon filter in your home air purifier.
So, I suppose it would make sense to believe that activated charcoal would be useful in beauty products that aim to detoxify the skin (like the Problem Solver by May Lindstrom, a face mask I regularly use and enjoy), or in nutritional products promising to reduce bloating or offer improved digestion.
Just do a Google search for an activated charcoal cleanse and you’ll find many supplements, powders, elixirs, and tablets with dubious claims that promise to heal your gut or remove heavy metals from your body.
Is There Evidence to Support All the Hype?
Well. No. Not really.
There is limited data on the use of activated charcoal beyond already established medical uses (essentially, poison ingestion). There are no studies on the effects of long-term usage of activated charcoal. So, that’s a pretty risky unknown.
But, even without those studies, we do know, however, that prolonged ingestion of activated charcoal can lead to dehydration.
More alarming, though, is that because activated charcoal acts a lot like a sponge and is so good at its job, it is indiscriminate in what it’s absorbing. With extended use over time, it will absorb nutrients away from your body and can lead to malnutrition.
So, consider this–if you’re adding activated charcoal to a healthy smoothie, for example, your body may not actually absorb all the beneficial nutrients packed into it. It renders foods LESS nutritious; one study shows that activated charcoal bonds to vitamin C and some B vitamins.
Additionally, anyone taking oral medication should be wary of activated charcoal because it might make medication less effective or absorb the drug altogether. This includes oral contraceptives, ladies. Be careful.
But, I’m sure there’s no real cause for concern if you’re only occasionally enjoying activated charcoal for the novelty of it.
Let’s call it what is: a fad that makes for great social media moments. You go get your Instagram photo and show all your friends–black lemonade! black toothpaste that turns your teeth black! whoa black ice cream!
Have you tried activated charcoal products? What are your thoughts on this trend?
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