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Activated Charcoal: Latest Health Fad, OTC Use and Misuse

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by Terra Leon, PharmD Candidate 2019

With all the new diet and detoxification trends arising from celebrities and the media, it’s hard to know harmful from helpful. Activated charcoal has been portrayed as the new “magic bullet” for multiple health issues. Activated charcoal’s popularity is quickly spreading and turning up in supplements, juices, hangover remedies, face masks and even toothpaste. The media and celebrities promise it will reduce bloating, clear skin, whiten your teeth, and detox your organs for a healthier life. But does it work?

What is Activated Charcoal

Charcoal is a fine black powder made from bone char, coal, saw dust, olive pits, coconut shells or petroleum coke4. The charcoal becomes activated when it is heated at a high enough temperature the structure changes and provides a higher surface area for substances to bind to4. Activated charcoal’s oldest use is in medical practice in the Emergency Room as a treatment to detox patients who over dose on certain medications. When a patient over doses on a medication like Tylenol or Aspirin, activated charcoal is utilized to help trap toxins and gases in the gut. Since activated charcoal is not absorbed by the body it carries the toxins bound to its surface area out of your body through feces like a big drug sponge. Due to its highly negatively charged surface, activated charcoal attracts positively charged molecules for excretion, like toxins and gases but it can also have an effect on other medication and lead to lower absorption4.

Alternative Options

An alternative to activated charcoal to reduce gas and bloating, is to stick to a whole food plant-based diet, avoid products with artificial sweeteners, avoid carbonated drinks, and beer, which can release carbon dioxide gas, Also, be sure to eat and drink slowly1. Taking your time eating and drinking can help you swallow less air and reduce gas. Consult your health care provider for other alternative over-the-counter options, such as Gas-X, if natural options still don’t provide relief.

For clear skin try over the counter or prescription products that help reduce oils and clear bacteria on the skin surface. Make sure you wash your face every day and avoid high in oil foods to reduce surface oil1. Consult your healthcare professional if blemishes continue to arise.

If its whiter teeth you seek, try over the counter whitening kits that have hydrogen peroxide. Rinse your mouth after consuming coffee, soda or teas. Activated charcoal lacks published studies on being beneficial for teeth whitening. In fact, the fine black charcoal powder can potentially become embedded into cracks or small holes in the teeth producing the opposite effect1. Consult your dentist for alternative whitening procedures.

Not So Harmless?

Using activated charcoal supplement as a detoxification method is not as harmless as some may think.  Activated charcoal does not have the ability to suck out toxic chemicals from your body, its effects are limited to the GI tract3. It does not discriminate against helpful chemicals in food you consume and can remove beneficial nutrients such as Vitamin C, B6, Thiamine, Biotin and Niacin from the body3. To “detox” or cleanse the body make sure to drink plenty of water each day and eat a high in fiber diet to help naturally remove waste from the body.

Medication Interactions

Activated charcoal can reduce the absorption and interrupt the circulation of certain medications and should only be used under the supervision of a health care professional2. If you are taking any prescription medication consult your doctor before using charcoal as a supplement or any other oral ingestible form. Due to its possibility of decreasing absorption of other medication it is recommended to take activated charcoal at least 1 hour before or 2 hours after taking other drugs if approved by your doctor2.

Bottom Line

With all the new health fads and trends offering a one supplement solve all solution or “magic bullet” it is easy to get sucked into the excitement of this new trend. When it comes to activated charcoal there are no strong studies supporting these benefits and weaker studies are not supported by science. Always consult your doctor or health care professional to gain all the information you need about a new product to determine if this product will be helpful or harmful to your personal health.

References:

  1. Calderone, Julia. “Activated Charcoal Isn’t a Magic Health Bullet.” Product Reviews and Ratings – Consumer Reports, Apr. 2017, consumerreports.org/dietary-supplements/activated-charcoal-fad-not-a-magic-health-bullet/.
  2. Charcoal Oral, Facts & Comparisons, 2018, https://fco.factsandcomparisons.com/lco/action/search?q=activated%2Bcharcoal&t=name&va=activated%2Bchar.
  3. Gavura, Scott. “Activated Charcoal: The Latest Detox Fad in an Obsessive Food Culture.” Science-Based Medicine, 28 Jan. 2016, sciencebasedmedicine.org/activated-charcoal-the-latest-detox-fad-in-an-obsessive-food-culture/. https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/activated-charcoal-the-latest-detox-fad-in-an-obsessive-food-culture/
  4. Petre, Alina. “What Is Activated Charcoal Good For? Benefits and Uses.” Healthline, Healthline Media, June 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/activated-charcoal#section10.

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