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Scoops of black charcoal ice cream in waffle cones

Healthy or Hype? Activated Charcoal Trend

If you frequent health food stores, coffee shops or cosmetic counters — or even if you don’t — you’ve probably seen a lot of charcoal lately. Activated charcoal, that is.

Also called activated carbon, it’s been turning up in soaps, face masks, over-the-counter pills, toothpaste, even lemonades, lattes and ice cream. Some sources claim it can lower cholesterol, clear acne, cure hangovers and “purify” the body.

So what’s the truth about charcoal? Should you be sipping and soaking in it? Is it healthy or even safe? Let’s break it down.

Safety First

Activated charcoal is simply charcoal that has been specially heat-treated to increase its absorptive power. Most activated charcoal is made from coconut shells or other natural sources. It’s usually sold as a black powder that is odorless and generally tasteless, although some say it tastes a bit chalky.

When consumed, activated charcoal binds with chemicals and toxins in your digestive system. That’s why it’s used to treat some kinds of poisoning — but only in high amounts given right away. If you suspect any kind of poisoning, don’t try to treat yourself. Call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222 or visit www.PoisonHelp.org, and get to the closest emergency room.

If you’re on any kind of medication, such as blood pressure medicine or birth control pills, talk to your doctor before consuming activated charcoal. Don’t have it within an hour of taking medicine or supplements because it can reduce or prevent their effect.

Activated charcoal can also bind with vital nutrients so that they never make it out of your digestive system. Too much of it could lead to constipation, vomiting or intestinal blockage.

Mugs of charcoal latte drinks sitting on table

Charcoal Beverages and Pills

When mixed into a drink or liquid, activated charcoal powder turns the liquid black. Some people prefer to take it in pill form. Benefits touted by natural health enthusiasts include lowering cholesterol and relieving gas and bloating. Some claim it can cleanse your body of toxins and chemicals from processed food, the environment and other sources.

Not much research has been done using activated charcoal in humans, and most research has focused on how well it treats different kinds of poisoning in a healthcare setting. Some studies have shown that it might relieve gas and bloating, but results have varied. There’s also no conclusive evidence that it can reduce cholesterol or improve heart health.

Some sources claim that cocktails containing activated charcoal make you less drunk or are “hangover-free.” But there’s no real evidence of that either.

As for “purifying” or “detoxifying” your body, activated charcoal only acts on toxins in your digestive system. Cleansing your blood is the main job of your liver. Your body also removes toxins on its own through the kidneys, lungs, lymphatic system and skin. To help them out, drink plenty of water; eat plenty of fruit and vegetables; and get plenty of exercise and rest. Also, avoid loading up on toxins, such as processed foods, tobacco or alcohol. (Limiting alcohol consumption is also a surefire way to avoid hangovers.)

Woman receiving charcoal face mask at spa

Charcoal for Skin Problems

Topical use, as in soaps, face washes and masks, may have some effect in treating acne or other skin problems, although there’s not much research to back it up. It probably isn’t harmful, but you’re probably better off treating acne with proven ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.

Black toothbrush with black charcoal toothpaste on top

Charcoal for Teeth Whitening

The American Dental Association (ADA) does not recommend activated charcoal toothpaste or other charcoal products for teeth whitening. In fact, because charcoal is somewhat abrasive, it might actually harm your teeth’s enamel. Better to stick with proven products provided by your dentist or a whitening toothpaste with the ADA Seal of Approval.

Charcoal tablet pills

The Bottom Line

Activated charcoal probably won’t hurt you in small amounts, but most of the benefits touted are not based on real evidence. It can have side effects, including removing nutrients and medicines from your digestive system. Before you start using activated charcoal or any other trendy “health” product, talk to your doctor.