Common Uses for Activated Charcoal

Scientific Evidence Supports Only a Few Activated Charcoal Uses

Black capsules spilling out of a brown bottle
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Activated charcoal has been used by medical professionals for over 150 years to treat poisoned and overdosed patients. But there are new uses for activated charcoal that have made it a trendy supplement found on store shelves around the country. Unfortunately, scientific evidence doesn't support many of these popular applications. Before you buy charcoal products to improve your health, it's important to examine the science.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Charcoal used for health is different than the briquettes that you throw on the barbecue to grill your food. Activated charcoal (sometimes called activated carbon)is usually made from natural materials (similar to common charcoal) like wood, peat, coal, or coconut shells. But activated charcoal is treated so that it can be used for medicinal purposes.

Activated charcoal can be found in different forms. You might see it sold as activated charcoal capsules or powder. The substance has tiny pores that allow it to trap certain toxins or chemicals and prevent their absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. Activated charcoal has been called a “drug sponge” by some experts in the media. After activated charcoal absorbs toxins, they are removed from your body in your stool.

Popular Uses for Activated Charcoal

There are many different ways that medical professionals and consumers use charcoal.

Certain uses are supported by scientific evidence, but in many cases the evidence is mixed. So you might see one study that supports using activated charcoal for a specific condition, but another that finds a completely different result. Unfortunately there are also some popular uses for activated charcoal that are not supported by any scientific data at all.

  • Teeth whitening: Some consumers buy activated charcoal powder to get a brighter smile. But according to the American Dental Association, consumers should not use the abrasive cleansers to whiten their teeth. The dental organization says you may actually cause your teeth to become more yellow. Instead, they recommend that you use a whitening tooth paste with an ADA seal of approval so that you know you are getting a product that is both safe and effective.
  • Hangover prevention: Activated charcoal is a popular ingredient found in many over-the-counter hangover products. Some consumers even take the product before drinking to reduce side effects from alcohol. But the use of activated charcoal as a hangover cure or preventative treatment is not supported by health experts because the substance does not trap alcohol well.
  • Drug or alcohol detox: According to the National Institutes of Health, activated charcoal is likely effective when used as a standard procedure to treat poisoning. In fact, one of the most well-​documented uses of activated charcoal is as a detoxification agent in cases of poisoning and overdose. The pores in activated charcoal trap toxins and prevent their absorption into the bloodstream. For that reason, the product is often used in medical centers, emergency rooms and by professionals who administer first aid.
  • Water filtration: Activated carbon or charcoal water filters are sold for hundreds of dollars online and in stores. Filters made from charcoal can effectively rid your drinking water of certain substances like chlorine and unpleasant odors. But activated carbon filters are not effective at trapping and filtering out all harmful substances. For example, activated charcoal cannot filter out ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, or significant amounts of certain heavy metals.
  • Lower cholesterol: Studies have been contradictory regarding the use of charcoal to treat high cholesterol. Some studies have shown that taking 4 to 32 grams per day of activated charcoal per day can help reduce both total and LDL cholesterol. But other studies have shown no benefit at all. Most large health organizations (like the Centers for Disease Control) do not include activated charcoal in their recommendations for lowering cholesterol and/or reducing your risk for heart disease.
  • Prevention of gas, flatulence, bloating, heartburn or indigestion: The University of Michigan suggests that supplementing with activated charcoal may provide some relief from gas because it can bind to intestinal gasses and rid them from the body. They cite two studies in which study participants ingested activated charcoal (in amounts ranging from 388 milligrams to 584 milligrams) after consuming gas-producing foods. Study authors found that the supplement provided relief. But other studies have shown no benefit at all. The National Institutes of Health says that evidence to support the use of activated charcoal to calm common stomach problems is inconclusive.
  • Traveler's diarrhea (TD): According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no strong evidence to support the use of activated charcoal for traveler's diarrhea or related stomach problems. The health organization specifically cautions again using the supplement to treat children with TD or dehydration as it may prevent absorption of healthy nutrients.
  • Cholestasis during pregnancy: Some studies support the use of activated charcoal for treating reduced bile flow (a condition called cholestasis) during pregnancy. But experts still say that there is insufficient evidence to support its use. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult with their physician before taking activated charcoal or any supplement.
  • Charcoal detox diet: Since activated charcoal has been well-documented as a medical detoxification aid, some health and wellness brands have begun selling drinks (like lemonade or tea) that are made with the supplement. There have also been stories in the media about charcoal diet weight loss and about celebrities using charcoal to improve their health. While it is possible that you might lose weight on a diet plan that includes activated charcoal, the product itself provides no healthy weight loss benefit. In fact, if you drink enough activated charcoal you may lose weight because your body is less effective at absorbing important nutrients—making you less healthy, not more healthy.

Activated Charcoal Risks and Side Effects

Activated charcoal is generally considered safe when taken by most healthy adults for a short period of time. However, since the product prevents absorption of chemicals—both good and bad—taking the product with healthy foods may prevent the absorption of healthy vitamins and minerals.

The most common side effects of activated charcoal consumption include black stools and constipation. Some users also experience a black tongue if they ingest the powder.

People who are taking over the counter or prescription medications should talk to their doctor before using the product. Activated charcoal may prevent or change the way your body absorbs the medication and may change the effectiveness of your treatment.

In addition, people with certain medical conditions should be especially cautious when taking activated charcoal. Medical experts recommend that patients who suffer from reduced peristalsis should talk to their doctor before trying the supplement. Those with intestinal obstruction should not use it at all. In rare cases activated charcoal may cause slowing or blockage of the intestinal tract, regurgitation into the lungs, and dehydration.

Lastly, some users complain about the hassle of using activated charcoal. In its powder form the black substance can be very messy. For that reason, it is not recommended that you use the powder near fabric or materials that might stain.

A Word From Verywell

Since the product is used by medical professionals, it can be tempting to believe that activated charcoal has the power to calm your stomach, whiten your teeth, or provide other health benefits. And since it is generally considered a safe product for most adults to use, you might be tempted to give it a try. But remember that ingesting activated charcoal capsules or powder can change the way your body absorbs food and medication. Always talk to your doctor before taking this or any supplement. In cases or overdose or poisoning, call poison control, 911, or go to the closest emergency room for assistance.

Sources:

American Dental Association. Mouth Healthy. Natural Teeth Whitening: Fact vs. Fiction. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/w/natural-teeth-whitening.

Cochrane. Interventions for treating cholestasis in pregnancy.  http://www.cochrane.org/CD000493/PREG_interventions-treating-cholestasis-pregnancy​ 

University of Michigan. Michigan Medicine. Charcoal. http://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hn-5203004 Reviewed June 2015.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. PubMed Health. Activated Charcoal (By mouth). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0008816/​.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. Activated Charcoal. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/269.html. Reviewed May 2015.

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