Activated Charcoal: Wellness Fad or the Real Deal?

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

Unless you’ve managed to avoid reading any major magazine or health blog this year, you’re probably at least familiar with “activated charcoal,” the ingredient that turns food and beauty products jet-black. It’s been trending for a while: face masks, water bottles, toothpaste, ice cream, moisturizer — nothing seems off limits. The marketing around these products often boasts promises of wiping out “impurities,” but could these claims possibly be legitimate? Or is this just another untested, pseudo-scientific wellness fad?

As it turns out, activated charcoal actually does work to detoxify the body in some cases; doctors use it in hospitals as a treatment for overdoses, for example. But in the wrong context, the efficacy nose-dives. So before you go out and order an activated charcoal cocktail (yes, that’s a thing), here’s what you need to know.

What even is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is a porous substance known for its cleansing and detoxifying properties. The ingredient can be sourced from coconut shells, oak branches and bamboo. It has become a common treatment for many poisonings; medical personnel can administer it on the scene or at a hospital as an alternative to stomach pumping. It’s on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.

How does it actually work?

“Activated charcoal works through the process of adsorption (not to be confused with absorption),” says Katie Morra, a Registered Dietitian and Functional Medicine Nutritionist. “It incites a chemical reaction where various elements, nutrients and chemicals bind to the porous surface of the charcoal like a magnet.”

Studies that show its benefits date back to the early 1900s. “One of the first studies published in 1933 by the Canadian Medical Association referred to charcoal as ‘medicinal,’” says Stella Metsovas, a nutrition expert who’s written about healthy-gut foods.

Activated charcoal has also been proven as a digestive and as a treatment for the skin. “The Washington Institute of Medicine ran studies in 1947 on the use of charcoal in treatment for skin disorders like acne vulgaris,” Metsovas says. “However, the main proposed uses for charcoal have mostly showcased its ability to help diminish gas and bloating.” Food-grade activated charcoal travels through your gastrointestinal tract and could potentially absorb toxins that cause intestinal gas. With skincare products, charcoal works similarly to get rid of dirt and oil, Metsovas says.

Is it safe to consume?

In food and drinks, charcoal is becoming one of the “functional ingredient ‘it’ trends’” of recent years, Metsovas says. But why?

“Pretty much the only reason to add activated charcoal to ice cream or pizza crust is to produce that rich, Instagram-worthy black color,” wrote Amy McCarthy for Eater in a comprehensive story that wades through the activated charcoal trend in food. Basically, while activated charcoal is a detoxifier, it mostly just soaks up molecules in its path, so it doesn’t distinguish between the bad stuff and the good stuff in your body. “When a person consumes activated charcoal in ice cream, the charcoal sucks up the calcium, potassium and other vitamins that would be found in the milk. This prevents the stomach lining from absorbing those nutrients, which means that the body eliminates them as waste alongside the charcoal. In extreme cases, this can result in malnutrition,” McCarthy writes.

Metsovas adds: “I would not recommend consuming charcoal on a daily basis because of this. If charcoal does in fact have the ability to bind to toxicities, then it could also bind to non-toxic — and beneficial — nutrients as well.”

Some studies have tried to show the connection between charcoal and lowering cholesterol levels in the blood, but those have been inconclusive, says Metsovas. “There are claims being made that charcoal can help miraculously lower cholesterol levels. This type of information is hugely incorrect because diet and lifestyle plays a major role in maintaining healthy bloop lipids; charcoal will not cure a bad diet or sedentary lifestyle.”

(There is one way Metsovas does recommend using activated charcoal, though, and that’s in capsule form after alcohol consumption, essentially to soak up all the alcohol you just drank. However, at least one study has proven that doesn’t work.)

Morra doesn’t recommend consuming activated charcoal through food and drinks, either. In addition to the problems noted by Eater and Metsovas, Morra says that consuming too much activated charcoal “can and will, over time, cause microbiome (gut makeup) imbalances. Over 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut. If you cause imbalances, you can get infections or disease may manifest.”

Also, if you are on birth control or other medication, activated charcoal could render them ineffective by adsorbing those drugs, so be careful.

Is it good for the skin?

The claim that activated charcoal is beneficial for acne-sufferers or people who live in congested cities is iffy and contested. Dermatologist Bobby Buka says that, “in beauty products, activated charcoal works similarly [as the medicine] by sopping up impurities before they permanently penetrate the skin.”

But dermatologist Kelly Bickle says there’s no evidence to suggest it works in beauty products. “It is currently touted as a treatment for acne,” Bickle says, “claiming that it draws bacteria, dirt, chemicals and toxins to the surface of the skin, but there is no data to support this… There is only one article in the medical literature that looks at its use in treating acne and that was from 1958.”

Bickle says there is data to show that it helps with the healing of skin ulcers and insect bites, but if you’re simply interested in using activated charcoal as part of a skincare routine, she suggests passing it up for proven, effective treatments. “While it seems like a nice theory, we don’t have any data [to back up the claim].”

Even Buka, the dermatologist who says it can help, admits it isn’t a cure-all. “I’d rather see people decreasing their skin’s exposure in the first place by applying a daily sunscreen and moisturizer. I don’t know if it’s going lead the charge for skin health.”

Additionally, activated charcoal can have a drying effect on the skin if overused.

How about for teeth?

As for its use in oral care, a lot of beauty writers have tested the claims that it will whiten teeth with positive results. Like with beauty products, the idea that activated charcoal can help whiten teeth seems to be another theoretical assumption based on the fact that it can draw out impurities in other ways. But dentists aren’t so sure, since there are no known research studies to show the effectiveness of activated charcoal for tooth whitening. In fact, the American Dental Association downright warns against it because it can be too abrasive.

My conclusion? It’s probably not going to kill you, but activated charcoal in food, health and beauty products is not going to help much, either.

Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist who has been published in Columbia Journalism Review, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and The Development Set. Follow her @JulissaTrevino.

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