On Your Health

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Debunking the Hype Surrounding Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal has become a very big trend in health and wellness in the last few years. From toothpaste to detox drinks, you can find activated charcoal on many grocery store aisles. Unlike regular charcoal, which is commonly used for grilling, water filtration and art, activated charcoal is oxidized, increasing its porosity and surface area. But does it live up to all the hype? 

The short answer is no, according to an INTEGRIS physician who has looked into the matter for us. Plus, minimal research has been performed on the safety of activated charcoal and our understanding of the substance is still in its early stages, so it is important to take caution with each use. 

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is made by burning natural, carbon-rich materials (bamboo, wood, coconut shells, olive pits or coal) in low-oxygen concentrations. This process extracts the hydrogen, methane and tar from the material, reducing its weight and creating a black, mostly carbon substance. The remaining charcoal substance is activated by steaming at very high temperatures or mixing it with chemical substances to eliminate any remaining non-carbon elements. The final material is an extremely porous version of carbon that can bind to many elements.

"Activated charcoal is any kind of carbon-based product that is heated. Activated charcoal has little nooks and crannies," says Dr. Shripal Bhavsar, a radiation oncologist at INTEGRIS.

"The idea is that activated charcoal becomes like a sponge, soaking up things. That's why it's used for toxicology. If you had a medication overdose or drank something poisonous, activated charcoal can bind to it before it can be absorbed by the body. Then, the charcoal just passes through the body."
Activated charcoal can come in many forms, including powder, pill, cube, sponge and fabric.

How does activated charcoal work?

Activated charcoal binds to toxins and chemicals to keep your body from absorbing them. Adsorption occurs when molecules of a substance adhere to a surface – a different process than absorption, where a substance is permeated or dissolved by another. 

The porosity of activated charcoal allows many substances to become adsorbed to, or trapped in, the spaces. Essentially, activated charcoal has a negative charge that makes positive-charged toxins attach to it. When the activated charcoal is washed away or flushed out of the system, it brings the toxins and chemicals with it. 

In addition to internal and topical use, activated charcoal is also commonly used in water filtration systems as it can adsorb water impurities such as pesticides, toxic waste, fluoride and other chemicals.

Uses of activated charcoal

The use of charcoal for health and medicine is not a new discovery. Records show that Egyptians used charcoal around 1500 B.C. to adsorb odors from wound infections. The earliest clinical use of charcoal was recorded in the early 1800s when it was first used to prevent poisoning.

Poison and overdose

One of the most common uses of activated charcoal is emergency toxin removal in the form of poisoning or overdose. It has been known to adsorb the toxins found in pesticides, mercury, bleach, opium, cocaine, acetaminophen, morphine and alcoholic beverages, to name a few. 
If you are experiencing poisoning or overdose, call 911 immediately. Do not attempt to treat with activated charcoal on your own. Proper doses must be administered as quickly as possible by a licensed medical professional.

Skincare

Skincare and acne treatment are among the most popular uses of activated charcoal. Charcoal face masks are used to clear dirt and toxins out of pores. Charcoal cleansers are used to adsorb surface oils and clean the skin. It is also commonly used as a paste to treat acne, insect bites or stings.

However, activated charcoal cannot distinguish between good and bad substances. This means it adsorbs both healthy and unhealthy oils from the skin. To prevent the skin from becoming too dry or depleted of healthy oils and vitamins, each of these treatments should only be used once or twice per week and in combination with proper replenishing ingredients.

Charcoal Mask

Dental hygiene 

Activated charcoal is commonly known as an all-natural teeth whitener. Some people like to brush their teeth with a wet toothbrush dipped in activated charcoal powder to whiten teeth and improve oral health. 

Although there are no definitive studies, some think the charcoal will adsorb the plaque and substances that cause stains while changing the pH balance in the mouth, which can help prevent cavities and gum disease. 

If you use activated charcoal on your teeth, it’s important to rinse your mouth thoroughly to remove all of it from your teeth and gums. Don’t stop rinsing until your spit is clear. 

Charcoal can stain fabrics and grout, so protect surfaces before brushing your teeth. It can also cause tooth sensitivity, so don’t brush with activated charcoal more than three times per week.

Digestion

Activated charcoal is also used for digestive cleanses and as a treatment for gas and bloating. Some believe the charcoal will adsorb any ingested toxins and flush them out of the body. Common methods of ingestion include pill supplements and detox juices. 

It is important to maintain a healthy digestive tract, free from toxins that cause food allergies, fatigue and inflammation. Activated charcoal is often viewed by consumers as a quick and easy way to reset the gut and alleviate gas and bloating, but there are healthier ways to reformat your diet and digestion.

Consuming less gluten and dairy while eating more vegetables, grass-fed lean protein and cutting back on processed foods, sugars and beverages are just a few of the options available to “reset” your gut. 

Many medical professionals warn against ingesting activated charcoal. While it can rid your body of toxins, it also can flush out healthy substances. Just like on the skin, activated charcoal cannot distinguish between good and bad toxins in the body.

Studies have also found that activated charcoal can adsorb supplements and medications, including birth control pills, causing them to become ineffective. Do not consume activated charcoal within two hours of taking medication. 

Activated charcoal can also cause dehydration. When taking activated charcoal, it is important to drink two to three liters of water per day. Not only will this keep you hydrated, but it will also assist in flushing the toxins and charcoal out of the body.

But does it work and is it safe?

Dr. Bhavsar says that ingesting activated charcoal won't hurt most people, and it is highly unlikely to cause cancer, but may not live up to all the miraculous claims that companies are touting when it comes to skin care or "cleanses."
"In terms of health purposes in the unregulated commercial space, there is a lot of weird stuff out there. Activated charcoal does absorb what it comes in contact with, but it cannot 'draw things out' of the skin," he says. "So that foot wrap that claims to use charcoal to draw out toxins from the bottom of your feet? That's not very likely."

He continues, "There might be a slight benefit in using activated charcoal for digestion, bloating and gas. For instance, if you have food residue in your colon, then the activated charcoal can bind to that and pass it through. But it does not draw out toxins from the colon," says Dr. Bhavsar.  

However, he says, "It could also bind to minerals and nutrients you need. If you are taking a multivitamin and activated charcoal together, then that charcoal is just binding to those vitamins and passing it through the body before it can be absorbed."

Dr. Bhavsar says a high-fiber diet will do more for digestion than activated charcoal could.

"The more fiber you have in your diet, the more it scrapes off cells in the intestines, which is why a high-fiber diet works so well to prevent colon cancer," he says. "In fact, eating a high fiber diet reduces all-cause mortality by 17 percent. That's better than any single pill or product on the market right now."

In summary, activated charcoal does have its uses and is usually safe to ingest, but it may not live up to the miraculous claims that some companies are marketing.

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