What is activated charcoal and what is it used for?

Activated charcoal seems to be just about everywhere. There are so many reality stars and social media ‘influencers’ who are filling their feeds with pictures and videos of them smearing their skin or teeth with striking masks and toothpastes made from the ingredient. Health shops and cafes have filled their shelves with charcoal products and among the wheatgrass shots and colourful juices at smoothie shops are striking black-coloured beverages made from the ingredient. But what is activated charcoal? And, other than looking good on Instagram, are there any health benefits to using it?

Nutritionist Milena Kaler explains that the first important thing to understand is that activated charcoal is not the same thing as the charcoal you would use for a barbecue. ‘Common charcoal is made from peat, coal, bamboo, wood or coconut shell. Activated charcoal is made especially for use as a medicine.

The activating process removes impurities and creates fine, small granules.

Eyecatching facemasks – but do they work? (Picture: MonicaNinker/Getty) ‘To make activated charcoal, manufacturers heat common charcoal in the absence of oxygen. That produces a highly absorbent material with millions of tiny of internal spaces or pores that bind and remove poisons and chemicals.

‘These pores help activated charcoal trap chemicals and prevent their absorption.

‘Activated charcoal is widely used in the treatment poisoning and drug overdoses.

‘It has been used by Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years to remove toxins, chemicals and poisons, and improve intestinal health.

’ Milena explained that activated charcoal worked by trapping chemicals preventing their absorption.

‘Charcoal’s effectiveness in treating poisoning occurs through its direct adsorption of the toxic substance in the gastrointestinal tract.

‘A process called adsorption works by chemically binding the chemicals and toxins in the tiny pores rather than absorbing them.’

However, it does have its drawbacks and she warned that using activated charcoal along with medications taken by mouth can decrease how much medicine your body absorbs, and decrease the effectiveness of the medication.

She suggested that, to prevent this interaction, take activated charcoal at least two hours after medications or supplements you take by mouth.

‘It can also make it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients,’ she added.

The benefits Milena explained the different ways activated charcoal could be beneficial:

1. Emergency poison and toxin removal Studies show that activated charcoal can adsorb up to 50-60 per cent of the toxic substances in the GI (gastrointestinal) tract when taken quickly after ingestion. It is used all over the world by emergency centres for different types of poisoning and overdose of many pharmaceutical drugs. It can also be used in case of food poisoning.

2. Oral care

Activated charcoal makes great toothpaste ingredient, helping to kill bad bacteria in the mouth and prevent bad breath.

It doesn’t neutralise the toxins but it can bind to bacteria and other substances. And due to its anti-inflammatory properties it may help to reduce oral inflammation.

Activated charcoal powder is mildly abrasive helping to whiten teeth.

However, because of its abrasive properties, I wouldn’t recommend using toothpastes or tooth powders with charcoal more than twice a week as it may damage enamel of your teeth.

3. Beauty products Activated charcoal is a fantastic cleanser and face mask ingredient to help Fortnite is addictive – but it’s not to blame for your child’s bad behaviour remove bacteria, reduce inflammation, minimise pores and exfoliate the skin, preventing future breakouts making it an excellent ingredient for acne and oily skin care products. If it has the ability to bind toxins in our gastrointestinal tract, it will likely bind toxins on the skin but unfortunately there is no scientific evidence to support this.

4. Water filtration Activated charcoal is commonly used in water filtration systems due its excellent adsorption properties. The pores of activated charcoal can trap and lock water contaminants during the water filtering process.

5. Other

There are claims that activated charcoal can reduce cholesterol, prevent hangovers and relieve flatulence (gas).However, there is no strong scientific evidence to confirm those claims.

Rather than just being used to gain likes on social media, it seems there are benefits to using activated charcoal.

Dan Trussler, clinical director at Ancestral Health, uses activated charcoal products roughly once a week as a tooth whitener and also as a digestive aid.

‘It’s great at binding to plaque and other bits that can accumulate on and between our teeth and has the ability to restore some level of whitening to our teeth.

‘Same way as it’s used in emergency medicine if someone has ingested a toxin, the charcoal binds to it and eliminates better than stomach pumping in some instances. ‘So if I’ve had a ‘dodgy’ meal I’ll take some in a similar fashion.’

Kathryn Minchew, aka Pyromaniac Chef and owner of Gloucester Studio restaurant, uses activated charcoal in her cooking.

‘Well, given charcoal tablets are used to treat diarrhoea I use it sparingly.

‘But moving on from that, it is a great natural additive for keeping bread fresh. ‘As it absorbs moisture, it makes crackers super crispy.

‘However, the major attraction has to be how it looks. ‘When making canapés and similar items from dough and pastry you have a lot of beige so activated charcoal has the ability to up colour contrast without using food dye.

‘It has relatively little effect on taste.

‘That’s why it’s been so popular with ice cream shops etc as you can buy a black ice cream that has a very fresh and light lemon flavour.’

There are drawbacks to using activated charcoal, and Milena warns of the risk of consuming too much.

‘Activated charcoal is safe for most adults when used short-term.‘

Side effects of activated charcoal can include constipation and black stools which should not be confused with black, tarry stools. ‘

The human body is very well designed and does a good job of cleansing itself if we focus on good nutrition, regular exercise and other healthy habits, as well as avoiding toxins.’