The benefits of activated charcoal: Is the hype real?

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If you’re a parent, a health guru, or just someone looking to add something “all natural” into your routine, chances are you’re familiar with activated charcoal — this odd, surprisingly edible substance.

At the end of the day, though, should you really be buying into all the hype surrounding activated charcoal tablets, powder, and masks?

What is activated charcoal?

The charcoal used for health purposes is none other than the charcoal we get from burned wood and other natural materials.

The trick is medicinal charcoal is created in an airless environment, and it gains the title “activated” when it is ground into a fine powder for better absorption in the body.

It is not the same as the charred pieces of wood in your fireplace or the charcoal in your grill. Please do not grind up fire remnants at home and try to eat them!

The University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) explains activated charcoal is a staple in modern medicine because it chemically attaches/absorbs to a variety of gasses and particles, but is not absorbed by the body.

This makes it ideal for binding to toxic substances in the digestive tract and safely transporting them out as waste.  It is often used in hospitals to treat accidental poisonings or drug overdoses.

Activated charcoal uses: What works?

Even though we know activated charcoal can be beneficial from a health standpoint, that doesn’t mean it’s a miracle cure for everything wrong in the human body. Because of its ability to remove toxins, activated charcoal has become the go-to for a number of fads, including teeth whitening and skin cleansing.

Before you jump on those beauty bandwagons though, let’s take a look at what science says about activated charcoal risks and benefits.

High cholesterol

UMHS notes activated charcoal may have some benefit for people looking to control high cholesterol levels. When taken at 4 to 32 grams a day, activated charcoal can prevent cholesterol absorption in the intestine; however, research showing long-term, positive effects is limited at this time.

Flatulence reduction

Have issues with stomach gas? Several studies suggest taking activated charcoal can help eliminate gas in the intestine, reducing flatulence. UMHS does state, however, there have also been studies that refute these claims. Best case scenario, ask your doctor!

Detox

Body detoxes are all the rage, but the truth is an activated charcoal cleanse isn’t likely to be beneficial. Activated charcoal only remains active in the body for a short time (a couple of hours), so in theory, you’d have to take the product constantly throughout the day, and that is not recommended for digestive health. In addition, activated charcoal may not only bind to harmful toxins. It binds to many substances, and that may include beneficial nutrients in the intestinal tract.

Weight loss

The selling point for activated charcoal and weight loss has to do with fats and food particles passing through the intestinal tract without them being absorbed. While it sounds like a promising plan, the truth is there are no studies supporting the use of activated charcoal for this purpose.

What’s more, due to the limited amount of time activated charcoal works in the body, an individual would have to take so much they might risk side effects, like constipation according to the Mayo Clinic.

Cleansing

Perhaps the most famous activated charcoal beauty trends are teeth whitening and skin cleansing.

You’ve probably seen the social media advertisements, right? Well, we hate to burst your bubble, but so far there is no scientific evidence supporting charcoal use for the skin and teeth.

In fact, an American Dental Association (ADA) spokesperson told The Daily Beast the abrasiveness of charcoal on teeth is very concerning and its safety is unknown.

The risks of activated charcoal use

We know activated charcoal is awesome for removing poisons and medications from the body, but the fact is, we don’t know much more beyond that when it comes to applications in other areas of health.

And just because activated charcoal is mostly safe, doesn’t mean there aren’t side effects to its use.

Some individuals may experience:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

Note, those are side effects associated with proper use of activated charcoal. The more we branch off into unexplored health territory, the less we know about the risks of excessive charcoal use.

Let’s also not forget about the side effects associated with the “other” ingredients in fad charcoal products.

Those charcoal face masks, for example, have become the bane of many beauty bloggers, but not because of the charcoal. A number of users have struggled with the masks because of how sticky they are; so sticky, they remove a layer of skin when peeled off!

Definitely not our idea of a productive beauty treatment.

To use activated charcoal or not to use activated charcoal

Based on the evidence, you shouldn’t turn to activated charcoal as your cure-all.

Thankfully, if you do want to test the waters for yourself, experts agree activated charcoal products are relatively safe.

That being said, it’s always wise to consult with your doctor before beginning any supplement routine, especially if you are using activated charcoal to control health issues like cholesterol, obesity, or flatulence, which may have more serious, underlying causes.

 

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Hope Gillette
Hope Gillette

Hope Gillette is a journalist from New York. She specializes in research journalism and has an extensive background in Hispanic health writing. Hope is also a published novelist and award-winning author, as well as a mixed martial arts expert and fitness trainer.