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Activated Charcoal – Is it the Ultimate Detox Supplement?

You know when an ingredient starts showing up in the beverages of your local juicery that it’s a trend that won’t go away anytime soon. Lately, it seems like activated charcoal is everywhere.

Activated charcoal, also called activated carbon, is made by heating carbon-containing material in an airless environment. 1These materials often include wood, coconut husks, lignite, rye starch, and coal. 2 The material is then activated using oxygen or other common chemicals. It’s a black, thin-grained solid.

The reason why activated carbon or charcoal is so popular is its ability to attract substances (such as dirt and oil from your pores) like a magnet, and then quickly absorb them.

History of Medical Use

The blackened material has been used as medicine for thousands of years. The first recorded use of activated charcoal was in 1500 BC. Egyptians used activated charcoal for intestinal issues and for purifying wounds. 3 Famous doctors of the ancient world, including Pliny and Hippocrates, used it in many medical instances. 4 In World War I, soldiers used it in gas masks.5

Recently, activated charcoal has enjoyed a resurgence. Here are some of the ways activated charcoal can work – and some of the ways it can’t.

Activated Charcoal as an Antidote to Poison

In hospital settings, activated charcoal is often used in cases of poison ingestion or drug overdose. It works by absorbing toxins in the gastrointestinal tract before the bad stuff can get into the bloodstream. 6 However, for it to be the most effective, activated charcoal must be taken within one hour of the poisoning or overdose. (This is probably why charcoal is all the more present in emergency rooms.)

Can Activated Charcoal Rid Your Body of Toxins?

Since activated charcoal can absorb toxins in the case of poisoning, you might think it would be beneficial as a whole-body cleanse. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence it can work this way. Some people also claim activated charcoal can help cure a hangover. This is false, since a hangover occurs long after you drink alcohol, and activated charcoal must be taken within one hour of toxin ingestion. 7 Also, activated charcoal can bond with many types of chemicals in your body, including vitamins. 8 If it removes vitamins from your body, taking activated charcoal for a cleanse could end up leaving you less healthy. Your body is an amazing machine that already does a great job of detoxing on its own. 9

Activated Charcoal | Nucific

Beauty Applications

There are no scientific studies to date that have proven the effectiveness of activated charcoal in skin care. 10 Still, some claim that activated charcoal skin cleansers and masks can help clear acne, including blackheads. For hair, activated charcoal devotees add the black powder to their regular shampoo to take away dirt and buildup. It’s also said to cure dandruff and other scalp conditions. This makes sense, because the black substance has been shown to “suck out” grime, oil, and other toxic elements.

Plus, activated charcoal is unlikely to cause irritation or an allergic reaction, so there’s little harm in trying it for your skin or hair.

You can make your own activated charcoal facial mask at home. Most recipes also include bentonite clay, a substance made from volcanic ash that’s said to be an amazing skin purifier. Mix 1½ teaspoons bentonite clay, ¼ teaspoon activated charcoal powder and 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or honey. Put this mixture on your face and leave it there to harden. After around 15 minutes, remove the mask with warm water. No time for DIY? Many skin masks containing activated charcoal are available commercially.

Brushing your teeth with it is said to make teeth whiter. Many dentists disagree; in fact, some are advising patients not to use it on their teeth because it may lead to enamel and tooth deterioration. 11

Does Activated Charcoal Reduce Intestinal Gas?

There is some evidence it can reduce intestinal gas – and some evidence it can’t. A 1981 study found that supplementing with it led to less flatulence after a gassy meal. 12 A study from 1986 found that activated charcoal led to less bloating, cramps, and gas for study participants in the United States and India. 13 However, a 1985 study concluded that activated charcoal did not affect gas. 14 A more recent study conducted in 2000 found that activated charcoal did not reduce flatulence. 15 Clearly, more research is needed to determine if activated charcoal is a relevant remedy for intestinal gas. If you’re interested in taking activated charcoal for gas, talk to your doctor.

Cholesterol | Nucific

Activated Charcoal’s Effect on High Cholesterol

There is some evidence that activated charcoal supplementation can help with high cholesterol. A 1989 study from the University of Helsinki in Finland found that taking activated charcoal helped reduce cholesterol for patients. The supplements were also well-tolerated. It should be noted that this was a very small study of just 17 patients. 16 Consult your doctor before taking activated charcoal for high cholesterol.

Warnings and Interactions

Activated charcoal, like any supplement, can interact with other types of medicine. If you take activated charcoal orally, do so under your doctor’s supervision. Tell your doctor all of the medicines you are taking, including supplements and herbal remedies. People with some medical conditions should not take activated charcoal. This includes recent surgery patients, those who have intestinal bleeding or those with a hole in their intestine. 

Though it’s not a cure-all, activated charcoal has some medicinal benefits that allow doctors to help remedy overdoses, and it’s a featured ingredient in beauty products everywhere, from masks and cleansers to bar soaps and shampoos. Will you give it a try in your beauty regimen?

For more helpful health news, keep reading:

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1.”Charcoal | Michigan Medicine”. N.p., 2017. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

2. Derlet, Robert. “Activated Charcoal- Past, Present And Future”. N.p., 1986. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

3. “University Of Kentucky Center For Applied Energy Research – Carbon Materials – Carbon History And Timeline”. N.p., 2017. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

4. “University Of Kentucky Center For Applied Energy Research – Carbon Materials – Carbon History And Timeline”. N.p., 2017. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

5. Derlet, Robert. “Activated Charcoal- Past, Present And Future”. N.p., 1986. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

6. Landau, Elizabeth. “The Facts Behind Hangover Remedies”. N.p., 2010. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

7. Landau, Elizabeth. “The Facts Behind Hangover Remedies”. N.p., 2010. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

8. Gavura, Scott. “Activated Charcoal: The Latest Detox Fad In An Obsessive Food Culture”. Science-Based Medicine. N.p., 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

9. Johnson, Amanda. “Thetruth About… Detox Diets”. N.p., 2006. Print.

10. Friedman, Molly. “Blackened Beauty: Charcoal And Its Purifying Properties Are The Latest Health Fad”. N.p., 2014. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

11. News, Fox. “Dentist Warns Against Charcoal Teeth Whitening Trend”. Fox News. N.p., 2016. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

12. Hall RG Jr, et al. “Effects Of Orally Administered Activated Charcoal On Intestinal Gas. – Pubmed – NCBI”. N.p., 1981. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

13. Jain NK, et al. “Efficacy Of Activated Charcoal In Reducing Intestinal Gas: A Double-Blind Clinical Trial. – Pubmed – NCBI”. N.p., 1986. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

14. Potter T, et al. “Activated Charcoal: In Vivo And In Vitro Studies Of Effect On Gas Formation. – Pubmed – NCBI”. N.p., 1985. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

15. Di Stefano, M. et al. “Non-Absorbable Antibiotics For Managing Intestinal Gas Production And Gas-Related Symptoms”. N.p., 2000. Print.

16. Neuvonen PJ, et al. “Activated Charcoal In The Treatment Of Hypercholesterolaemia: Dose-Response Relationships And Comparison With Cholestyramine. – Pubmed – NCBI”. N.p., 1989. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

About the Author

Dr. Amy Lee

Dr. Amy Lee has board certifications in internal medicine, physician nutrition and obesity medicine specialty. She practices internal medicine with a heavy emphasis on nutrition, wellness and weight management. Her Clinical nutrition fellowship training at UCLA has allowed her to incorporate realistic lifestyle modification in all her medicine patients.