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Activated charcoal is in your water filter and your lemonade, your face wash and your ice cream, your toothpaste and your cocktail. With its dramatic color and purported health benefits, it's just the combination of beauty and brains that makes for marketing gold (er, black).
But is it the all-purpose detoxifier (and "clean skin miracle") it's chalked up to be? Should you be ingesting as much as possible, slathering it onto your face and gulping it down after every work out? Before you rush out for a black-tinged juice, read more about where activated charcoal comes from, the health claims surrounding it, and the risks of consuming too much.
So what is it?
Charcoal, the byproduct of slowly burning wood, peat, bamboo, or coconut shells in the absence of oxygen, is "activated" when it's heated with a gas or activating agent. This expands the surface area and opens up millions of pores between the carbon atoms, making the charcoal highly porous, nonpolar, and capable of adsorbing carbon-based molecules. (In adsorption, the molecules accumulate on the surface of the material; in absorption, on the other hand, the molecules permeate the bulk of the substance, penetrating its center.) Because activated charcoal has such a huge surface area (the millions of pores!), it has countless bonding sites that will ensnare certain chemicals that pass near its surface. (Once those bonding sites are full, however, an activated charcoal filter will need to be replaced.)
Chemicals that are not attracted to carbon—like sodium, fluoride, ammonia, and nitrates—will not interact with the activated charcoal, meaning that activated charcoal water filters will remove some, but not all, impurities.
Even if activated charcoal is a relatively recent addition to juice shops and cocktail bars, it's no new medical treatment: It's administered in emergency rooms to treat specific types of drug overdoses and poisonings within an hour of ingestion (though it's not effective in treating alcohol, cyanide, lithium, or iron poisoning, among other afflictions). Regardless, if you or someone you know may have ingested poisonous substance, immediately call the Poison Control Center (in the U.S. 1-800-222-1222) and follow their instructions. Do not attempt to self-treat with activated charcoal.
Thousands of years ago, activated charcoal was used in Ayurvedic and Eastern medicine to cleanse the body (as far back as 1500 B.C.E., activated charcoal was used to "adsorb unpleasant odors from putrefying wounds" in Ancient Egypt).
But outside of the ER, for everyday "cleansing"? As an article in Consumer Reports put it:
People have tried to translate the very limited success of activated charcoal in the ER to their everyday lives, assuming that if it can adhere to and remove certain drugs in the emergency room, it can sop up all kinds of toxins, making an already healthy person even healthier. But this logical leap is not based in science.
What are some of these health claims?
Claim: Relieves gastrointestinal distress
There is some scientific evidence to support claims that activated charcoal is an effective stomach aid. According to Consumer Reports, a study of 276 patients with indigestion found that activated charcoal in combination with magnesium oxide offered relief. This study hasn't been replicated in larger groups, however, and according to the Mayo Clinic, activated charcoal "has not been shown to be effective in relieving diarrhea and intestinal gas."
In fact, its side effects include vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation, the very ailments some say it cures (and, to me, that makes consuming activated charcoal a bit of a GI gamble).
Claim: Prevents and/or cures hangovers
Dr. Michael Lynch, the medical director for Pittsburgh Poison Center and assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told TODAY that activated charcoal does not bind to ethanol because of its chemical structure. That said, you'll find plenty of testimonials claiming that the pills really get the job done ("I don’t know why they work, but I do know I’ll never head to a cocktail party without them again," writes Deven Hopp).
A cheaper, more surefire hangover prevention tool? Plenty of water. While the mechanisms behind hangovers aren't entirely understood, but many scientists agree that good old H20 will help mitigate symptoms of dehydration.
Claim: Treats cholestasis, whitens teeth, cleans skin, reduces odors, leads to weight loss, reduces cholesterol, etc.
Verdict: Unclear, but not scientifically proven
According to WebMD, there is no scientific evidence to show that activated charcoal can treat cholestasis in pregnancy (in which the flow of bile from the liver slows or stops) or lower cholesterol. There are also no studies regarding whether activated charcoal can fight odor as a breath freshener or deodorant, or whiten teeth (Consumer Reports even referenced an unpublished experiment that noted that the charcoal powder could, counterproductively, darken teeth by lodging in cracks and small holes), or work miracles on dirty skin.
And if you do feel more svelte after ingesting activated charcoal, it might be because the charcoal is cleansing the intestines and reducing bloat, but not actually fomenting true weight loss.
Claim: General "detox" (AKA the natural removal of toxins from the body)
Verdict: Activated charcoal does remove toxins in the stomach...
...but, as Consumer Reports points out, not in the blood. The body "already has organs such as the kidney and liver to filter out impurities" and, what's more, charcoal does not bind to the heavy metals that some detox-ers are trying to expel.
"I don’t see any true health benefit of popping charcoal supplement pills," Dr. Shana Kusin, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University’s Hospital & Health Systems, told the magazine. That said, a lack of scientific evidence does that mean that many people don't swear that activated charcoal makes them feel better, especially when you consider that there's little incentive from the pharmaceutical industry to investigate.
So while one or two charcoal pills (or a 16-ounce activated charcoal lemonade) may not scientifically "detoxify" anything (and it's an insignificant dosage compared to what's medically administered), it's unlikely to harm you either—but there are some serious caveats to consider.
What are the risks?
Activated charcoal can interfere with medications, adsorbing the molecules and rendering the drugs ineffective. Most companies that sell activated charcoal, according to Eater, recommend waiting at least two hours between consuming a supplement and taking a prescription medication, like birth control (or one of the over 200 other drugs with which it interacts).
Many people also recommend consuming charcoal on an empty stomach, so that it doesn't interfere with the absorption of vitamins and minerals. In the case of black ice cream, "the charcoal sucks up the calcium, potassium, and other vitamins that would be found in the milk," writes Amy McCarthy for Eater. "This prevents the stomach lining from absorbing those nutrients, which means that the body eliminates them as waste alongside the charcoal. (And doesn't that make the stylish charcoal ice cream less nutrient-dense than mint chocolate chip?)
How does it taste?
Activated charcoal treatments are known to be, well, vile. Gastroenterologist described the activated charcoal administered in hospitals as "this really nasty looking drink. You have [the patient] swallow it, and you hope they vomit." Juice Generation founder Eric Helms told Time Magazine that it was a challenge to make the store's lemonade good-tasting. The flavor of activated charcoal is often masked and muted by other ingredients (like lemon, coconut, and ginger) to make it tolerable.
At Baba Cool Café in Brooklyn, they whisk activated charcoal powder with tahini, then toss it with cauliflower that's been roasted with turmeric-ghee. The activated charcoal makes the dish a bit gritty and perhaps the slightest bit smoky (or am I imagining things?), but the true flavor comes from the earthy, bitter turmeric, which is offset by sweet goji berries.
It's a recipe I like—but next time, I'll skip the charcoal.
For the turmeric ghee and the activated charcoal tahini:
- 1 pound unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/3 cup finely grated fresh turmeric or ground turmeric
- 1 cup tahini
- 1 tablespoon activated charcoal (like Solaray Activated Coconut Charcoal Powder), optional
- Lemon juice and salt, for seasoning
For the finished dish:
- 2 heads cauliflower, cut into small florets
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/3 cup turmeric ghee (from above)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or more to taste
- 1 tablespoon activated charcoal tahini (from above), or more to taste
- 1/3 cup goji berries
Have you tried any activated charcoal toiletries or foods? Tell us in the comments below.