The Truth About Activated Charcoal

The Truth About Activated Charcoal
activated carbon in capsules
We hear a lot about “detoxifying” our bodies. You can get tablets, teas, body washes, bath salts, juices and so many more things that promise to purge your system of impurities and leave you squeaky clean. But my attention has been centered on one item lately: Activated charcoal.

Growing up, it was advertised as a part of a cigarette filter, it was used in the space capsules and more importanly, we used it to grill burgers and steaks! But the briquettes, which are laced with all sorts of hazardous chemicals, eating activated charcoal won’t land you in the ER. Activated charcoal is oxidized with superheated air (or steam) to expand its surface area and make it more porous. That also makes it more absorbent, allowing it to soak up toxins and impurities as it goes though your system; or so the theory goes.

“The problem with charcoal is that it’s non-specific — It’ll bind to anything it finds absorbable,” said Dr. Ken Olson, medical director of the San Francisco Poison Control System in an interview with Time. “This might include vitamins and amino acids and other things you actually need in your diet.”

That hasn’t stopped manufacturers from adding activated charcoal to everything from juices to cosmetics or selling it to consumers in pills or powders with the claims it will cure everything from handovers to bad breath. How well do use promises hold up to reality? Read on and find out!

The Claim: Activated charcoal can detoxify your body.
The Truth: It can — in an emergency. Studies show that activated charcoal can bind to and remove E. coli and help treat drug overdoses, making it a go-to detoxifier in many emergency rooms. But timing is critical — activated charcoal needs to be ingested within 2-hours of an overdose for it to be effective, according to a review in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. After two hours, the body will have absorbed most of the toxins, leaving little for the charcoal to mop up. As for everyday toxins, there isn’t much research to support the ability of activated charcoal to remove them. Fortunately, your liver and kidneys do a pretty good job of doing that on their own.

The Claim: Activated charcoal can cure a hangover.
The Truth: Not really. While the headache and nausea that come from too many margaritas are symptoms of a drug overdose (yes, alcohol is a drug), activated charcoal won’t help relieve them. The reason: It doesn’t “absorb” alcohol. “It does not bind well to ethanol or alcohol because of the chemical structure,” Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director for Pittsburgh Poison Center, said in an interview with Today. Water, aspirin, and a strong cup of coffee are still your best bets.

The Claim: Activated charcoal can whiten your teeth.
The Truth: The evidence is anecdotal, but many people swear it works. (Independent testing at Beachbody remains inconclusive.) The theory is that activated charcoal’s natural adhesive qualities allow it to bind with stains from coffee, tea, wine, and other enamel-discoloring substances, and take them with it when you spit it out. But the benefits stop at stains — if your teeth are naturally yellow, you’ll need to buy a product that contains a bleaching agent, like hydrogen peroxide, or try an in-office treatment from your dentist.

The Claim: It can cure bad breath.
The Truth: Activated charcoal can help treat an extremely foul variety of bad breath called trimethylamine, according to a study in The Clinical Biochemist. But when it comes to chronic halitosis, or acute tuna-fish breath, you’re out of luck.

The Claim: It can clear up your skin.
The Truth: Maybe, maybe not. Cosmetic companies would have you believe that smearing activated charcoal on your face can clear up unsightly blemishes and make your skin “glow,” but science has yet to confirm such benefits. “Truthfully, there isn’t solid clinical data one way or the other,” dermatologist Dr. Craig Kraffert, told the New York Daily News. Try it if you want, but don’t be disappointed if your results vary from what you see in commercials.


Activated Charcoal: Bottom Line

While, activated charcoal can help to detoxify the body, it must be used quickly and properly. The proper cure for a hangover so to not drink so much the night before! It might help whitten your teeth, but you’ll be better off using products that have been proven to work (talk to your dentist.)

My reccommendations would be if you want to use it, sprinkle some fine powder in your shoes to absorb the odors or put a tray near the cat’s litter box, but for the body, you don’t need it!




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