If you love learning about all of the latest nutrition fads as much as I do, you’ve probably noticed an interesting trend lately. Our food and personal care products are turning black! So, what’s giving ice cream, facial cleansers and even toothpaste a dark new hue? Activated charcoal!
Foods and products containing activated charcoal claim to help your body kill bacteria and rid itself of toxins. The cleansing and detoxifying qualities they boast make activated charcoal seem like it must have magical powers. But as with any other wellness trend that seems to suddenly to pick up steam, I had to wonder whether or not the products live up to those promises.
Since I thought you might be wondering the same thing, I did some digging. Now I’ve got all the deets on activated charcoal—ready to dive in?
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal (aka activated carbon) isn’t just the stuff at the bottom of your grill pan. It’s made by burning coconut shells or wood, grinding them and combining the ash with an acid to activate it. The resulting paste is spread out on on a flat surface to dry, then bake. Sounds like something that you wouldn’t want in your body, right?
Well, this process gives charcoal a ton of surface area and a negative charge, which means it’s like a magnet, giving it the ability to attract and expel toxins from your system. That’s why it’s been used since the 1800s as a highly effective remedy for poisonings and overdoses—it quickly binds to contaminants and prevents absorption.
Today, people are going crazy for activated charcoal for other reasons—let’s chat about what’s got everyone so excited!
What are the benefits of activated charcoal?
You may have considered or done a detox to reboot your energy, jumpstart your metabolism, drop some extra pounds or reset your relationship with food. Detox means a little something different to everyone, but it usually comes down to cleansing our bodies in some way. So, if that’s on your agenda, taking activated charcoal (along with a clean, plant-powered diet, extra hydration and self-care) can help you clear out the toxins that might be gumming up your system.
There’s very little scientific research out there about activated charcoal for detoxing, but integrative docs are generally on board with the idea and recommend taking it in capsule, power or paste form. Here are a two options from Solaray, a supplement brand I trust:
Keep in mind that taking charcoal internally may result in some side effects, so do your research and check in with your doc—I’ve also included a section below to cover some of the symptoms you might experience.
Feelin’ tooty fruity? Tum troubles got ya down? When taken internally, activated charcoal may help neutralize liquids and gases that get trapped in the intestine and cause uncomfortable symptoms. Subjects in a study of its effectiveness against extreme gas, bloating and abdominal pain reported relief and none of the potential side effects commonly found with over-the-counter digestive aids.
Or, maybe diarrhea’s got you making frequent trips to the porcelain throne. This particular potty problem is often the result of bacterial infections or prescription drug intake—and activated charcoal may come in handy by helping your body get rid of bacteria and other toxins. Plus, there’s a bonus: Activated charcoal doesn’t come along with yucky side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, constipation, fatigue and dry mouth that are common among antidiarrheal medications.
Most docs recommend taking activated charcoal at least 30 minutes before each meal, and some also discourage supplementation for more than 3 consecutive days. So, as always, consult with your doc to find the form and dosage that’s best for you!
Oral health and teeth whitening
I bet that black toothpaste is one of the last things you ever thought you’d see—I know I was surprised the first time I spotted it! Well, it turns out that activated charcoal may help strengthen enamel, whiten teeth and improve gum health by binding to and eliminating bacteria and toxins. So, if you’re interested in taking your oral health up a notch, you may want to check out one of the many products now available with activated charcoal (I’ve included a few options below).
While a couple of studies indicate that products containing activated charcoal boost oral health, there’s a lot more anecdotal evidence than true research at this point. Most integrative docs say there’s very little risk in trying one of these products, but some dentists recommend only weekly or monthly use for people with especially weak enamel. As always, I encourage you to check with your dentist before you give charcoal toothpaste a try!
I haven’t had a chance to try any charcoal-infused oral care products yet, here are a few promising options (all vegan and free of gross additives!):
- Activated Charcoal Whitening Toothpaste (Heritage Store)
- Activated Charcoal Extra Freshening Mouthwash (Hello Oral Care)
- Natural Bamboo Charcoal Toothbrushes (The Green Root)
Wound healing and skin cleansing
With its antibacterial effects, activated charcoal can bind to harmful particles in wounds and speed up the healing process. It can also remove toxins and fluids that slow down healing, even helping to heal burns and skin ulcers. And because bacteria in wounds often creates an odor, charcoal dressings are being used effectively for their ability promote healing and reduce the yucky aroma. You can also find charcoal-rich salves and infused oils to treat your scrapes, cuts, burns and boo-boos of all kinds.
Wounds and infections aside, your skin is an organ that constantly absorbs toxins, pollutants and other undesirables. Activated charcoal is great for day-to-day use because it can bind to those nasty skin‑truders and prevent them from wreaking havoc on your fabulous epidermis. You’ve probably seen moisturizers, cleansers, night creams and face masks containing activated charcoal pop up—maybe you even tried one (if so, I want to hear about it in the comments!).
Here are a few options from brands I like (all vegan, of course!):
- Charcoal Konjac Facial Sponge (EcoTools)
- Detox Hand & Body Scrub (Shea Moisture)
- Cedarwood + Juniper Bar Soap with Charcoal and Exfoliating Volcanic Sand (Schmidt’s)
- Crystal Lava Bubbling Charcoal Mask (Pacifica)
- Dark Angels and Coalface (Lush)
- Charcoal Drawing Cream (Charcoal House)
Activated charcoal attracts and releases toxins and waste in urea (the main component of urine), which can save poorly functioning kidneys from having to excrete them. One study showed that activated charcoal (taken orally in combination with a low-protein diet) can help treat elderly patients with end stage renal disease—even allowing them to avoid dialysis. More research is necessary to prove the efficacy of activated charcoal for kidney disease, but I’ve gotta say that I’m pretty excited about the prospect!
Dosage and possible side effects
Activated charcoal comes in so many different forms… gels, pastes, powders, capsules, drinks, mouth rinses, moisturizers, creams, masks and soaps. Topical products don’t come along with a whole lot of risk in terms of dosage—just follow the instructions on the packaging and be sure to test in a small area, especially if you tend to have sensitive skin (this goes for any new product you try!).
As for taking it internally, recommended doses haven’t been set by the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Like I said earlier, some brands recommend against taking it on long-term basis or even for more than 3 consecutive days. That’s why I encourage you to check with your doc first—it’s your best bet for making sure you’re adding activated charcoal to your routine in a safe and effective way.
Side effects of taking activated charcoal internally are mostly harmless and more common if taken for a long period of time, in higher doses or in sensitive individuals. But, they are important to be aware of and include:
- Black stools
Activated charcoal in foods, toothpaste or other oral products may result in a black tongue or black teeth. This is really only a problem if you’re on a date or at an interview!
Here’s one more thing to keep in mind: The same thing that makes activated charcoal so effective is also what makes it potentially dangerous. It can bind to and reduce the potency of certain prescription medications. The same goes for vitamin and mineral supplements.