Hello and welcome to my series Emma Explores where I investigate various “things” in wellness! From new fads to ancient formulas, my goal is to dive in headfirst with the hopes of demystifying some of the buzziest buzzwords in wellness. Today, I’m looking at Activated Charcoal to see what all the fuss is about!
Activated Charcoal is everywhere, from gothic ice cream to black toothpaste that whitens, detoxifying pills to sheet masks for your vulva (yes, really!). So, what is it exactly and what benefits does it have?
What is Activated Charcoal?
Let’s start with the basics: Charcoal, which is a form of carbon, is created by cooking wood, bone, and other organic matters in a low oxygen environment. Activated Charcoal is charcoal that has then been processed with high amounts of heat. These high temperatures change the internal structure of the charcoal, creating small & shallow pores which increases the surface area as well as its adsorptive powers. People are often more familiar with absorption than it’s shy cousin, adsorption. They’re pretty similar, the main difference being absorption works more like a sponge, soaking things up, and adsorption works more like a magnet, drawing things to it. The adsorption factor is actually quite important and what makes activated charcoal so special.
What can Activated Charcoal be used for?
Activated Charcoal adsorbs substances in the stomach and intestines which makes it a great standard treatment for food poisoning and overdoses. It works by drawing out any drugs, chemicals, and/or toxins, which prevents their absorption into your system. From there, they’re able to then pass through your body. If you’re looking to treat a serious health condition, we would recommend only taking Activated Charcoal if a medical professional has suggested so, as self-prescribing it might not be the right answer.
Ok, real talk: should I be using it?
More recently, people have been experimenting with using it in Instagramable foods, soaps, deodorants, face masks- you name it! If I was to hazard a guess, the allure of using activated charcoal in products would be because “it’s detoxifying!” and “it’s cool and black!”
Anything topical made with Activated Charcoal like skin care products might be packaged in a way that is a bit misleading: there is potential for these products to have benefits; however, you’re not going to be able to adsorb toxins or chemicals from something that is just touching the surface of your skin, especially for a short amount of time. Even if some of it was able to get deep in your pores, it would take a few hours for Activated Charcoal to really work, according to this study.
Charcoal toothpastes are marketed in a similar way, implying that it can remove harmful bacteria and toxins as well as remove stains from your teeth. But there’s actually no evidence that shows dental products with charcoal are effective or even safe for your teeth, according to the Journal of the American Dental Association.
Now, what about the products that you can consume like lattes and ice cream? As we now know, Activated Charcoal adsorbs substances in your body. So, you may want to be careful if you consume Activated Charcoal alongside any medications taken orally, as it can decrease how much medicine your body absorbs, decrease the effectiveness of your medication, as well as change the biotransformation of the drug when being absorbed.
Our advice? Unless you’re on medication, we say go for it! It might not have the health benefits you’re looking for, but it’s pretty harmless. If you’re on a medication, ask your doctor for some guidance about timing your medication and activated charcoal intake. And if you’ve been literally poisoned, please stop reading this and call Poison Control: (800) 222-1222 and 911.
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This is part of a series, explore more with Emma here!