Activated Charcoal: Breaking Down the Myths & Facts
What is activated charcoal?
So first things first: What, exactly, is activated charcoal?
To be clear, we’re not talking about the briquettes you use in your outdoor grill, which would be toxic if you tried to ingest them. Activated charcoal can be made from a number natural carbon sources, including coconut shells, peat, wood, and coal.1,2 The charcoal is heated (this is where the “activated” part of activated charcoal comes from). This process removes toxins and impurities and breaks it down to a fine powder, which in turn increases its surface area and leaves the resulting compound more porous than typical charcoal.1,2
How it works in the body
The added surface area of the porous charcoal helps it bind to toxins and unwanted chemicals in the body, preventing them from being absorbed. Instead toxins are adsorbed by the activated charcoal, and since our bodies can’t process the charcoal, it’s eliminated, along with the excess toxins it carries.3
Key uses of activated charcoal
Due to its binding properties, activated charcoal can prevent drugs or poisons from being absorbed into the body, so it is often used to help eliminate toxins in the event of overdosing or poisoning.1,2,4 Using activated charcoal to help remove poison from the body isn’t a new remedy; in fact, people began using activated charcoal as an antidote to poison more than 150 years ago.1
Since the timing and dosing will vary, it’s worth noting that using activated charcoal in the event of overdosing or poisoning must take place under the care of medical professionals and does not necessarily work with all toxins.
Our bodies aren’t the only things from which activated charcoal can remove impurities. Activated charcoal is frequently used in water filtration systems, where it adsorbs pesticides, fluoride, and heavy metals.2,5
Additional uses of activated charcoal
Many claims have been made on additional uses of activated charcoal, but there aren’t always valid studies backing them up. In addition, some studies have been done with mixed results on the usage of activated charcoal for the following:
While our kidneys aren’t supposed to need any help filtering impurities, people with certain conditions may need a little help in the process of eliminating urea. Activated charcoal may be able to bind to urea and urinary toxins to help with their removal from the body.5,6 Some animal and human studies showed some success with using activated charcoal to address this process, but additional studies are needed for long-term usage.2,5,6
Controlling intestinal gas & bloating
Many products containing activated charcoal claim to work as digestive cleanses, flushing toxins from the body and thus reducing gas and bloating. In fact, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has approved activated charcoal for the reduction of excessive intestinal gas accumulation and reduction of bloating.7 The problem is, the substance can’t discern between healthy and unhealthy particles, so it will also frequently flush away necessary nutrients. Even more concerning, it may cause the elimination of medications and nutritional supplements, reducing their effectiveness.8
Several studies have been done that indicate activated charcoal may help reduce intestinal gas, although others showed mixed results.2,9 Activated charcoal is also purported to address diarrhea caused by bacteria or drugs, but again, the research is limited.
The Mayo Clinic disagrees with reports of activated charcoal’s effectiveness for the management of diarrhea as well as gas and bloating, warning of possible dangerous side effects including stomach pain and swelling, diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting.4
A few studies have been done to determine if activated charcoal can be helpful in reducing cholesterol levels. Some studies found that activated charcoal can bind with bile acids during the digestive process, helping to remove cholesterol they contain, showing lowered LDL cholesterol and increased HDL levels.10-12 However, other studies contradict these positive results, indicating that more research is needed before activated charcoal can be recommended as a resource for cholesterol control.13
Activated charcoal is a frequent starring ingredient in facial cleansers and masks, which makes sense: Since we know this substance can bind to and remove toxins and particles in our guts and water filters, it would follow that it would do the same for dirt, old makeup, impurities, and other chemicals that may reside on the skin. However, while activated charcoal can help to remove particles from pores, it can’t discern between healthy and unhealthy substances. In other words, as it removes excess oil, it may remove the healthy oils as well, so frequent use of an activated charcoal cleanser could easily lead to dry skin. Regardless, no studies could be found on this topic.
Likewise, activated charcoal is a common ingredient in “natural” deodorants, which tout its moisture- and odor-adsorbing capabilities, but no studies were found to support these claims.
A recent activated charcoal fad is the use of the substance as a teeth-whitener. This can be done in a couple of ways. Some may simply dip their toothbrush in charcoal powder and brush away; there are also dozens of toothpastes touting activated charcoal as a key ingredient for its whitening benefits. The toothpastes also frequently claim antibacterial, antifungal, or detoxifying benefits, although research doesn’t necessarily agree with these possibilities.2,14
While activated charcoal may work for water filtration and as a poison remedy in an emergency setting under a practitioner’s care, more research is needed before it can be recommended for its many other touted benefits.
1. Derlet RW et al. West J Med. 1986;145(4):493–496.
2. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322609#_noHeaderPrefixedContent. Accessed March 2, 2021.
3. Petre A. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/activated-charcoal#TOC_TITLE_HDR_1. Accessed March 2, 2021.
4. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/charcoal-activated-oral-route/description/drg-20070087. Accessed March 2, 2021.
5. Alkhatib AJ et al. European Science Journal. 2015;11(3).
6. Musso CG et al. Saudi J Kidney Dis Transpl. 2010;21(1):102-104.
7. European Food Safety Authority. EFSA Journal. 2011;9(4):2049.
8. Neuvonen PJ et al. Acta Pharmacol Toxicol (Copenh). 1984;54(1):1-7.
9. Hassler WL. Gastroenterol Hepatol (NY). 2006; 2(9).
10. Neuvonen PJ et al. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1989;37(3):225-230.
11. Krasopoulos JC et al. Lipids. 1980;15(5):365-370.
12. Kuusisto P et al. Lancet. 1986;2(8503):366-367.
13. Hoekstra JBL et al. The Netherlands Journal of Medicine. 1989;33(5-6):209-216.
14. Brooks JK et al. Journal of the American Dental Association. 2017;148(9):661-670.