The Truth about Activated Charcoal

The most important question: is it even safe?

Charcoal has created a buzz in the market with its use in various types of food and health items ranging from charcoal ice cream to burgers, smoothies, pizza, and even cocktails. This trend is not just restricted to the food industry. There is also charcoal toothpaste and tooth whitening, and there are activated charcoal masks for supposedly enhancing skincare routines.

The charcoal trend is suddenly everywhere.

But how safe is it? What is the reason for all the buzz? Will consuming or using activated charcoal make you healthy or unhealthy?

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There are many questions around activated charcoal. Let’s tackle them one by one, so you have all the necessary information to make an informed choice.

What is Activated Charcoal?

The charcoal that is most-often used in the food or wellness industry is activated charcoal, which is usually made from ingredients that include coconut shells or bamboo. This charcoal is created by heating the shells or bamboo at very high temperatures until they turn into ash. These ashes are then processed with hot air or steam, again at extremely high temperatures.

This processing oxidizes, or 'activates' the charcoal, increasing the overall surface area. Activated charcoal has lots of small holes in its surface, making it more porous. This allows the activated charcoal to soak up a variety of chemicals, and this is why it is used in filtration products, including water filters.

Unlike other types of charcoal, activated charcoal is not thought to be carcinogenic, but few studies have been performed to determine the long term effects of ingesting it.

The claimed benefits of activated charcoal

Because activated charcoal has the ability to absorb some toxins in the gut, before they can enter the bloodstream, it can remove toxins, such as poisons, before they do much damage. This is why activated charcoal has been touted as ideal for anyone who is trying to go on a cleansing diet.

Activated charcoal can be taken in pill form or add to food items. There are even claims that it fights hangovers, reduces some side effects of food poisoning, and has anti-aging properties.

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Other claims for activated charcoal include improving kidney health, diarrhea, intestinal gas, reducing gastrointestinal damage, chronic kidney diseases, and inflammation.

Although it has been shown to be an effective treatment for excessive flatulence if taken both before and after eating, there have been no credible research studies demonstrating that activated charcoal can have any widespread benefits. 

Traditionally, activated charcoal has been used as a natural water filter. Similar to its functions in the gut, activated charcoal can also absorb some minerals and chemicals which are found in water.

One study showed that a carbon-based filtration system could remove almost 100% of the fluoride present in 32 unfiltered samples of water over six months.

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Despite the lack of evidence, many people use activated charcoal for supposed detoxifying effects. This is the reason the charcoal trend has an appeal to people concerned with wellness.

What is the other side of the story?

While there has been a lot of talk about the supposed benefits of charcoal, there are a number of downsides to the use of activated charcoal in food.

The charcoal absorbs many things the body needs, such as nutrients and medications, preventing them from being used by the body. It also readily absorbs water from the gut, which can lead to dehydration and constipation.

Because activated charcoal can only absorb substances in the gut, it is almost useless for detoxifying the blood. And, while charcoal cocktails might look appealing, there is no evidence to show that it won’t give you a hangover.

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Charcoal's abrasive properties mean that it is also a popular ingredient in toothpaste. However, many dentists warn that these same abrasive properties can damage your tooth enamel permanently.

Active charcoal masks have also been touted as fantastic for your skin, claiming that they take away all the dirt and impurities, leaving your skin rejuvenated.

Again, the charcoal cannot absorb impurities from the skin, so it may be that the rejuvenating effect is due to the charcoal's abrasiveness and its ability to absorb water from the skin, further dehydrating it.

Does charcoal sound too dangerous?

The jet black ice creams, burgers, pizzas, cocktails, juices, and other food items containing activated charcoal may be worth sharing on Instagram if that's what you want. However, it may be good to avoid eating them, especially in large quantities.

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For uses like water purification, as a medically-administered antidote against poisoning, and for relieving excessive flatulence, activated charcoal has proven beneficial. However, there is no evidence to support the claims of activated charcoal as related to most health benefits, and it can harm your body by absorbing essential nutrients.

If you are still confused, yet keen on trying it out, the best thing to do is to consult your doctor. This will help you consume charcoal in the right dosage to ensure that you avoid any harmful effects.

Is activated charcoal safe?

When ingested in small amounts, or for medical reasons such as poison control, activated charcoal is safe. However, there is no evidence to support the claims that activated charcoal can have any other health benefit, including as a detox agent or a wellness cure. In fact, there is evidence to show that activated charcoal can prevent valuable nutrients and water from being absorbed into your bloodstream.

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There may be no reason for healthy people to avoid the occasional black ice cream, although if you are considering ingesting activated charcoal regularly, it will be best to consult with your physician first.

However, there are a number of reasons to avoid the use of activated charcoal for wellness detoxification or other unproven uses. Not least of which is that you are likely to be wasting your money on a gimmick. 

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