Activated Charcoal. The good, the bad, and the misinformed.

Activated Charcoal. The good, the bad, and the misinformed.


(Image via iHalo Crunch // Ft. Image via Brit + Co.)


In the world of it’s-not-legit-till-it’s-pretty-on-Instagram, food marketers are turning to strange things to get their products noticed, Snapped, and broadcasted. You may have noticed this too. Let’s talk about something that came along the with the ripple of unicorn lattes–only this is also riding the so-called health conscious wave. Charcoal. Everywhere.

I’ve seen so much hype around the use of activated charcoal in food products–from burger buns to ice cream to kombucha and fancy beverages–and it kinda irks me. Why? It’s become clear that the fad of this mystical black powder being some sort of super-food is horribly misunderstood.

BUZZWORD: DETOX (Ya, we’re still very much obsessed with *cleansing* and all that jazz.)

Yes, charcoal is incredibly effective at ‘detoxifying’ the body, but I have this term in ‘quotes’ because it’s a general and overused term. Let’s define it. How does charcoal detoxify? Through the process of adsorption (not to be mistaken with absorption), the highly porous surface of activated charcoal has a negative electric charge, which causes positively charged toxins/gasses to bind to its surface. That’s how it works. It attaches to substances so that we don’t get affected by them.

We need to define these things before feeling rather superficially content with downing something and paying extra for what may not be appropriate. Moving on..


Activated charcoal is widely used in poison control for drug overdose and accidental consumption of various products and/or when you have eaten something that is causing your stomach to turn as it prevents the poison from being absorbed from the stomach into the body. This is most effective when consumed within an hour of exposure. THIS is an appropriate use of activated charcoal. It’s in my natural medicine cabinet now and something I recommend my patients to keep and travel with–only to use in an intentional first-aid kit kinda way.

Note: Activated charcoal does not work for corrosive agents, alcohol abuse, and heavy metal toxicity (exceptions include bleach and mercury.) I’ve seen marketing claims for the latter two and they’re simply not true. 


Here’s an important point. Activated charcoal indiscriminately adsorbs chemicals. This includes nutrients. It will literally suck crucial minerals and vitamins out of the digestive system. So when we have that fancy charcoal infused drink with our lunch, the beneficial components will be negated. For this reason, charcoal should not be consumed within 2 hours before or after taking any medication, herbs, vitamins, omegas…anything but water.


Speaking of water, charcoal can be very dehydrating as it also holds onto water. It can cause constipation and is not intended for daily use. This is why it’s often combined with a laxative in the hospital setting, which further exacerbates the dehydration issue, but helps with the uncomfortable feeling of being plugged up and to assist with eliminating what is intended to be expelled from the system.

As noted earlier, regular intake can lead to nutrient deficiencies from simply preventing the uptake of important components within a normal healthy diet. Reserve your activated charcoal to your emergency kit when it comes to oral consumption.


Now, I still appreciate activated charcoal and it has other potentially great uses other than what I noted above. So, I’ll leave you with a few useful bits below:

Water filtration: Bamboo charcoal sticks have been used for ages to filter water and it’s currently used in advanced filtration systems. Activated charcoal trap impurities such as pesticides, industrial waste, solvents, etc. However, it doesn’t hold viruses, bacteria and minerals found in hard water. The Japanese use bamboo charcoal – takesumi (竹炭) – for this among other uses including our next point.

Air Deodorizers: small bags of charcoal sticks/plates can be placed in bathrooms, refrigerators, closets, etc to absorb malodors and leave the space feeling crisp. I have found this to be more effective than baking soda in the refrigerator.

Skin conditions: Activated charcoal is great for skin conditions ranging from acne to bug bites and plant exposure like poison ivy/oak. For the body, apply a mixture of charcoal powder and coconut oil (or any handy balm) on the skin and cover with a cloth to prevent staining clothes, etc. Reapply as needed. For the face, mix charcoal with clay and water and apply as a mask 1-2x/week. Note: I also like charcoal soap as it leaves my skin feeling fresh and slightly exfoliated, however, it stains the shower tub very easily and can be a pain to clean up.

Whiten teeth + freshen breath: to help reduce stains, you can add a bit of activated charcoal to your toothbrush and gently scrub 2-3x/week. This is only effective on natural teeth. Swish you mouth with water well until the water is clear. Do not do this if you have sensitive teeth. As always, talk with your dentist about this specific use.

Reduce gas/bloating: If you are feeling quite uncomfortable during a meal from gas-forming foods, you can have 500mg of activated charcoal with 2 large glasses of water to help alleviate these symptoms. Research published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that this can be quite effective. As noted above, unfortunately, you won’t absorb the other nutrients in the meal so well, however, the gas pains will be reduced significantly.

Emergency Detoxifier: This was noted above. To elaborate, activated charcoal is used orally in high doses (10-25g in children and 50-100g in adults) for multiple chemical exposures, including but not limited to: food poisoning, pesticides, mercury, fertilizers, bleach, acetaminophen, aspirin, cocaine, morphine, and opium. Always call 911 immediately for emergency assistance.


The activated charcoal I’m discussing in this post is not the same as your BBQ charcoal from the grill. Activated charcoal is specifically made by burning a substance like bamboo, wood, or coconut shell, without oxygen to create char. A multi-step process follows, which results in a highly porous surface that is “activated” and becomes powerfully binding. Activated charcoal is odorless, tasteless, and non-toxic.

What are your thoughts on activated charcoal?




WebMD Activated Charcoal:

Universiry of Michigan – School of Medicine. Activated Charcoal:

Konno, Hidek, et al. Neither hollow-fibre membrane filters nor activated-charcoal filters remove fluoride from fluoridated tap water. Department of oral health, School of Life Dentistry at Tokyo, Nippon Dental University,Tokyo, Japan. Journal of the Canadian Dental Association. Publication: J Can Dent Assoc 2008 Jun ;74(5)::443.

Oldies but goodies:

Derlet, R. W., & Albertson, T. E. (1986). Activated Charcoal—Past, Present and Future. Western Journal of Medicine145(4), 493–496.

Guss, D. A. (1989). Emergency Medicine: Activated Charcoal—The First-Line Agent in Cases of Overdose. Western Journal of Medicine151(1), 63.

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