Activated charcoal has become a hot health trend. You can buy it in pill form, in smoothies, face masks and even toothpaste. So what are the real health benefits of activated charcoal? What’s trendy hype? And when is it bad for you?
From ER Drug to “Miracle Cure”
Plenty of companies on the internet tout products containing activated charcoal, claiming it can detox your blood, purify your skin, whiten your teeth and cure everything from gas to the Zika virus.
Activated charcoal does have detoxifying properties, which is why it’s used in water purifiers and air filters. It’s more porous than the charcoal blocks you use in a grill, so it can draw chemicals out of a substance and absorb them. Emergency rooms use activated charcoal to treat certain kinds of poisoning and some drug overdoses. If administered quickly, it can prevent the poison or drug from being absorbed in the stomach and circulated through the body.
Outside of these situations, claims about the health benefits of activated charcoal tend to be more fiction than proven fact.
The Purported Health Benefits of Activated Charcoal
What are the claims about activated charcoal? When might it help, and when can it hurt? That depends on your body and how you’re using it.
To Soothe Stomach Trouble
A few small studies have suggested activated charcoal could help prevent flatulence and soothe indigestion, but according to the National Institutes for Health, there’s still no scientific evidence that it helps with travelers’ diarrhea, bloating, stomach cramps or gas or that it can prevent or treat Zika. In fact, activated charcoal can actually cause diarrhea, constipation, bloating, stomach pain and vomiting. This is particularly common with products that contain sorbitol, a sweetener/laxative.
It’s unlikely that activated charcoal removes heavy metals, pollutants and other toxins from your bloodstream because it stays in your gastrointestinal tract and only absorbs toxins for about an hour after it’s consumed. It can also bind to vitamins and nutrients in your food and prevent your body from properly absorbing them. To avoid any complications, talk to a doctor at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts to discuss how activated charcoal may react with any prescription medications you’re taking.
To Purify Your Skin
Masks and other skin-care products containing activated charcoal might help to exfoliate your face and dry up oily skin. There’s little scientific evidence, however, to support claims that it cures acne or detoxes your skin. The abrasive texture may help slough away dead skin cells, but if you use it too often, it can actually dry out your skin.
To Whiten Your Teeth
You can now buy whitening toothpaste that’s black, from the activated charcoal. However, there’s no scientific evidence activated charcoal whitens your teeth, and according to the American Dental Association, it may actually make them look duller and more yellow. That’s because the abrasive texture of the charcoal can strip your white enamel, exposing the yellow dentin beneath. Wearing down your enamel can also make you more susceptible to cavities.
Risks and Side Effects
Activated charcoal is generally safe for most people, but there are potential side effects. Along with possible tooth damage and stomach trouble, activated charcoal interacts with many medications — including antibiotics, birth control pills and a long list of other drugs — and can prevent them from being absorbed by your body.
If you’re taking medication, are pregnant, nursing, have stomach problems or have an allergy to artificial sweeteners, talk to your doctor about whether activated charcoal is a viable option for you.