What’s the Deal with Activated Charcoal?
Charcoal has been making the rounds in health circles and on social media—and we’re not talking about the charcoal you throw on a barbecue.
Black-colored foods like ice cream, bread, and lemonade infused with activated charcoal are Instagram bait, while charcoal body products like face masks and black whitening toothpaste have also gotten trendy. There’s even a black sour probiotic cider made by 101 Cider House (its color makes it especially fun around Halloween time).
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a fine black powder made from bone char, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, coal, olive pits or sawdust.
The charcoal is "activated" by processing it at very high temperatures. The high temperatures change its internal structure, reducing the size of its pores and increasing its surface area. This results in a charcoal that is more porous than regular charcoal.
Why is activated charcoal good?
Hospitals often use activated charcoal to treat certain overdoses since it binds to toxins in the body. When you use it on your skin it can help remove toxins from your pores too. But it can bind to good things also (more on that in the downsides below).
Some other ways to use activated charcoal include teeth whitening, alleviating gas and bloating, water filtration, emergency toxin removal like food poisoning, mold cleansing and more. Each comes with specific instructions and recommended dosage, so read more here, do your homework and consult a health professional since bad side effects can occur.
What are activated charcoal’s downsides?
Though activated charcoal is used in hospitals to treat some overdoses, it’s possible to overdose on charcoal or have it negatively react with another substance in your body.
Activated charcoal binds to certain substances in your body, so if you have too much or take it at the wrong time, it can have some of the following effects:
- Intestinal/stomach blockage
- May not be absorbed properly if you already have intestinal bleeding or blockage
- Could get into the lungs if you are less alert when you take it
Charcoal may negatively react with certain medications. And if you take it too soon after taking a certain medication, it could bind with that medication and make it less effective. The same goes for vitamin and mineral supplements.
Those Face Masks Can Hurt
Millions of people are viewing videos in which beauty bloggers and others apply a charcoal mask to their face—some made with charcoal powder and glue (the arts and crafts kind)—let it dry, and then slowly peel it off. These vloggers claim these type of charcoal masks are apparently good for removing blackheads and clearing pores.
However, they can remove other things too—like hair and the top layer of skin. It’s “just like waxing the face,” a dermatologist tells Health magazine. No wonder this popular YouTuber Tiff of Tiff and Cari is literally in tears as she slowly removes her charcoal face mask.
While Health Magazine’s sources deem some of these masks (the non-glue kind) painful but safe to use, a doctor tells the Daily Mail that these charcoal masks remove beneficial facial oils and can actually harm the skin.
How to Use Activated Charcoal
If you want to use charcoal on your face, here are some milder ways that won’t remove a bunch of skin or hair along with toxins:
- Make a simple, gentler charcoal mask like the DIY Charcoal Face Mask for acne and blackheads, by Root & Revel. This mask is more like a scrub that dries on your face, and then you wash it off with water and a washcloth.
- Buy a good scrub-like charcoal mask like Derma E’s Purifying 2-in-1 Charcoal Mask. Apply to your face; wait a few minutes; scrub a bit with water to exfoliate; and wash off.
It is always best to consult a health professional when you start something new related to your health, especially something you ingest.
Due to its drawbacks, activated charcoal should be taken only when necessary, like in the case of an overdose or food poisoning. Health professionals do not recommend it be taken regularly, so it may not be best to constantly load up on some of those trendy activated charcoal-infused foods, depending on how much charcoal they contain. If you’re looking for everyday ways to naturally detox, here are 10 to try.
If you plan to ingest activated charcoal, here are some tips:
If you’re taking supplements or medication and need to take activated charcoal, take it at least 2 hours before or 1 hour after a dose of any other medicine so the medication doesn’t become less effective.
From Dr. Josh Axe:
Whenever you take activated charcoal, drink 12-16 glasses of water per day. Activated charcoal can cause dehydration and constipation if adequate amounts of water aren’t consumed in tandem. This also helps flush out the toxins.
Look for activated charcoal made from coconut shells or identified wood species that have ultra-fine grains. In the powdered form, many products have added artificial sweeteners to make them more palatable; avoid these.
(Thumbnail Photo: SasaJo/iStock)
Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.