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January 09, 2019

So, what's the deal with activated charcoal?

The lowdown on this trendy black powder

Wellness Trends
activated charcoal unsplash Adrien Olichon/Unsplash

Like most things, charcoal is something that was once very popular and universally used, that has made a comeback in modern times.

Before the whole “wellness boom” brought forth by millennials, largely, activated charcoal was deemed to be an emergency treatment for certain kinds of poisoning. “It helps prevent the poison from being absorbed from the stomach into the body,” according to Mayo Clinic. Additionally, some activated charcoal products contain sorbitol, a sweetener, and can work as a laxative, for the elimination of the poison from the body.

Plus, activated charcoal has long been used in commercial settings, such as waste-management centers, as part of the filtration process. Dozens of water filtration products designed for at-home use feature activated charcoal in carbon cartridges to purify water of toxins and impurities, Medical News Today notes. 

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But is this black powder substance actually something worth incorporating into your routine, or is it just another passing wellness trend? We explore the facts below. 


Activated charcoal is a fine black powder made from bone char, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, coal, olive pits or sawdust. It is then "activated" by processing it at very high temperatures, which change its internal structure, reducing the size of its pores and increasing its surface area, Healthline reports. That powder is often then placed into capsules for supplementation or added to hygiene products. 


Today, activated charcoal still works by trapping toxins and chemicals in the gut, preventing their absorption. Because activated charcoal is not absorbed by the human body, it can carry the toxins bound to its surface out of the body in feces, per Healthline.


Known for its strong filtering abilities, it’s fitting that activated charcoal is helpful in assisting, and potentially improving, kidney function by filtering out undigested toxins and drugs. Activated charcoal powder is also thought to be able to disrupt intestinal gas because liquids and gases trapped in the intestine can easily pass through the millions of tiny holes in activated charcoal, and this process may neutralize them. That said, researchers don’t have a firm grasp on this process, according to Medical News Today.


However, and this is a big however, activated charcoal might not be practical, or even good, for daily use. This black powder latches on to every chemical it encounters, and can actually keep you from absorbing medications you’re taking and truly need. And it can even make your healthy diet less nutritious, preventing your body from absorbing vital vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. “Activated charcoal doesn’t know what your body wants and needs, and it can’t discriminate between good and bad,” MindBodyGreen explains.


Today, consumers will see activated charcoal popping up in products like skincare, teeth whitening, and foods and drinks, all often viewed as methods of detoxification.

Activated charcoal can help whiten teeth while promoting good oral health by changing the pH balance in the mouth, helping prevent cavities, bad breath and gum disease. It works to whiten teeth by adsorbing plaque and microscopic tidbits that stain teeth, making it a cost-effective and all-natural teeth whitener, according to Dr. Axe

As for its presence in food — as aesthetically pleasing (for Instagram) as it may be — you can probably pass. “The idea that activated charcoal will cleanse your body from toxins doesn’t make sense, as it will only bind to things in your stomach and small intestine — not any ‘toxins’ that have built up in your body,” Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and former spokeswoman for of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told SELF.

MindBodyGreen echoes that statement by suggesting that eating whole foods is better for your health than consuming activated charcoal. Eggs, avocados, carrots, broccoli, spinach, apples, asparagus, melon, Brazil nuts, and cilantro all support the body’s natural detoxification system, which includes the liver, large intestine, and lymphatic system, better than charcoal.

Skincare, however, is one area where modern activated charcoal consumption really thrives. Used in proper proportions, it can pull toxins and contaminants from the skin and rinse them down the drain, MindBodyGreen explains in another article. Although most charcoal skin care products are used to treat oily or acne-prone skin, activated charcoal may also be used to help treat cellulite and body odor, Everyday Health notes. In fact, a Philadelphia deodorant company, Piperwai, credits its success, in part, to activated charcoal which provides consumers with an all-natural product that works. 

The takeaway? As with most things, activated charcoal doesn't do much for you that a healthy, well-balanced diet can't do — unless you're in the hospital or if your skin could use a little detox. 

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