Healthy Buzzwords 101: Activated Charcoal
At SmartyPants, we’re all about simplifying health. In this series, we’re breaking down those healthy foods and phrases that are suddenly everywhere, to give you the five-minute scoop on why they’re all the rage.
Charcoal. Once destined for the bottom of the pit, this humble black chip has made its way into everything. And we mean everything – from toothpaste to face masks, from lemonade to even ice cream. Nowhere has the charcoal fever hit as hard as in La La Land itself. It’s like charcoal is the new turmeric. So, what’s the big deal about charcoal and is it worth all the hype?
It all stems from a buzz-worthy little word – “activated.”
Rumor Has It
Read the label of anything with charcoal in it, and, nine times out of ten, you’ll see the word “activated” plastered at least four different spots. Basically, the idea is that adsorbent properties of activated charcoal (meaning it draws liquids, gases, and particles to its surface) will help draw toxins out of the body for improved organ function, clearer skin, whiter teeth, you name it.
People eat, drink, and use activated charcoal to remove “impurities” from their bodies. In other words, to detox.
Of course, it’s important to establish what in the world “activated” even means. In laymen’s term, it means that oxygen has been added to the charcoal during the manufacturing process to increase its surface area. The greater the surface area, the more adsorbent the charcoal and the more particles it will draw.
Does It Work?
Yes and no.
Charcoal’s adsorbent properties are well-documented and backed by extensive evidence.
Charcoal is already widely used for many industrial applications, like gas purification, decaffeination, water purification, and sewage treatment. In Japan, many homeowners and small businesses will store charcoal beneath the floorboards or within the walls to help regulate humidity; moisture is released during the dry winter months and absorbed during the humid summer months. Charcoal can also be used to keep produce fresher for longer by absorbing the ethylene gas that causes fruits and vegetables to ripen. Speaking of vegetables, many farmers will also mix charcoal into the soil to help foster beneficial soil microbes and maintain optimal moisture levels, boosting agricultural yield. So the practical uses for activated charcoal are plenty.
The benefits of activated charcoal in beauty and hygiene products like shampoo, deodorant, and face masks are pretty well documented too. At best, the activated charcoal helps remove impurities that accumulate on the skin and scalp and absorb any funky smells. At worst, it’s ineffective but fairly harmless.
In the medical field, activated charcoal is used to treat patients who have overdosed; activated charcoal is pumped into the stomach to help absorb any drugs or chemicals a person may have ingested. To be effective, however, the activated charcoal must be administered shortly after consumption. Historically, activated charcoal ash was used to treat indigestion, heartburn, and acid-reflux, long before calcium carbonate hit the market. Activated charcoal has also been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), though the efficacy and scientific evidence behind TCM is lacking.
That being said, activated charcoal may be too effective for our own good.
Daily consumption of activated charcoal may cause malnutrition because it can absorb much of the minerals and nutrients from our food and in our digestive tract. So, as far as we know, all those charcoal-infused foods and beverages may as well be empty calories. Plus, the efficacy of activated charcoal to rid the body of toxins that accumulate normally in our organs from food and from the environment has not been well-studied.
Long-term, consistent use of activated charcoal can cause a number of undesirable and potentially dangerous side effects as well, such as black stool and tongue, vomiting and diarrhea, and gastrointestinal blockage. It can also interfere with certain medications, so, if you are on any medications, you should consult your primary physician before use.
And when it comes to toothpaste – don’t brush with it and don’t use it every day. Anecdotal evidence does suggest activated charcoal can lift new stains from your teeth. The abrasiveness from the charcoal, however, can wear down your enamel and irritate your gums. If you do want to use activated charcoal to whiten your teeth, it’s best to mix it into a paste using water and let it sit on your teeth for about three minutes.
The Final Verdict
The general scientific consensus is that activated charcoal is great for certain things and not so great for others. When it comes to your shampoos and face wash and even your underwear – go for it! There’s no harm in trying it. If it works, fantastic! If not, oh well. And mixing activated charcoal into your mid-afternoon iced tea or your post-dinner cocktail every once in a while is probably fine (but check with your doctor if you’re on medication!). You might even get a mini detox from it. But, like all things in life, don’t go crazy with it. It won’t make you popular and it won’t help you achieve total Zen.
For Your Consideration
To be clear, this does not mean you should be crushing up charcoal briquettes into your morning latte. Nor should you be using charcoal briquettes to keep your food fresher. Activated charcoal is the only type of charcoal you should even considering consuming. Pure charcoal, activated or not, is also very different from most commercially-available charcoal in the US that is used for grilling or for campfires. Toxic chemicals such as lighter fluids are often added to charcoal briquettes to make them easy-to-use and increase flammability.
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