Charcoal Craze: From Charcoal Croissants to Charcoal Toothpaste

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Story at-a-glance -

  • The inclusion of an activated charcoal croissant on the menu at a popular London eatery is just one of the latest offerings in the charcoal craze, which has already produced other charcoal-laced foods, as well as personal care products like deodorants, soaps and toothpastes
  • Given its absorptive abilities and long history of successful use, there is no doubt activated charcoal is beneficial for detoxification when administered by medical professionals
  • The downside of activated charcoal is that it acts indiscriminately, attracting and removing not only toxic compounds, but beneficial ones as well, making it unsafe to take in combination with medications and supplemental vitamins and minerals
  • Experts agree the use of activated charcoal as a toothpaste can do more harm than good due to its abrasive nature; if you are interested in whitening your teeth, try coconut oil instead
  • Research is underway to develop a special form of activated charcoal to eliminate antibiotics from your large intestine while protecting your beneficial gut bacteria

By Dr. Mercola

A London eatery called Coco di Mama is jumping on the charcoal bandwagon with its offer of a charcoal-laced croissant they describe as a "vegan delight." Below is an excerpt from their website:1

"We are so excited to bring you a charcoal-activated vegan croissant! It's quite an unusual looking item, but we can promise you it … tastes better than it looks. Unlike a regular croissant, there is no butter. The key ingredients are sunflower margarine, soy and barley flour, activated charcoal, sugar and lemon. The alkaline properties of charcoal in the croissant help to detoxify any poisons in your body by neutralizing excess stomach acid."

They go on to suggest this blackened bakery item can help with hangovers and bloating, two claims that are not scientifically founded.2 Activated charcoal aside, the other ingredients in the croissant, such as margarine, soy and sugar — all well-known to damage your health — more than make this menu item and other foods like it not only undesirable, but also something to avoid.

The Guardian suggests this faddish food item is just one of many charcoal-influenced products hitting the market recently. They make mention of "charcoal bagels, ice cream, burger buns, smoothies and pizzas ... plus charcoal toothpaste and face masks."3 Before you join the charcoal craze and rush out to buy any of these products, let's take a closer look at the effects — positive or negative — activated charcoal may have on your health.

What Is Activated Charcoal and Is It Beneficial?

While activated charcoal (carbon) can be both positive or negative charges depending on the pH of the solution in which it's created,4 do not confuse the health uses of it with the positive-charged, granular activated charcoal5 created by burning wood down to a char, such as the toxic briquettes used in your backyard grill. Rather, this activated charcoal is treated with oxygen, and when activated, its porosity increases, giving it a larger surface area through which to effectively absorb substances.

Given its absorption capacity, activated charcoal is used in medicine, pollution control systems and water filters. With respect to water filtration, activated charcoal improves water clarity, reduces unpleasant odors and removes chlorine.

Because it only has a limited absorption capacity, carbon filters must be replaced periodically. Activated charcoal also is used in tiny packets to absorb moisture in pill and supplement bottles. Because it is not absorbed by your body, it's free to collect surface-bound toxins and dispose of them through your bowel movements.

As to whether activated charcoal is good for you, the simple answer is: Yes, activated charcoal is beneficial. In fact, it has long been included in emergency kits where it is considered an "essential" item because it can save your life.

The Guardian notes: "[I]f you have literally just been poisoned, eating charcoal might be good for you because it could absorb some of the poison in your stomach before your body does."6 That said, in the event you haven't been poisoned, they note, "[I]t will just absorb whatever, including water, nutrients and medicine your body might actually need."7

The Facts About Activated Charcoal's Filtering Ability

Writing for ThoughtCo., Anne Helmenstine, Ph.D., author and scientific consultant, disputes the urban legend suggesting activated charcoal is effective in the treatment of hangovers. In reality, she states it "only weakly absorbs alcohol and is not an effective means of removal."8 Her comments remind me to caution you against following the absurd advice of the young woman in the featured video who paired activated charcoal with alcoholic drinks.

Her use of activated charcoal in that way is reckless and medically unsound. You'd be wise to avoid alcohol. If you do choose to consume it, I recommend you do so only occasionally and in moderation — never combining binge drinking and activated charcoal. Beyond alcohol, Helmenstine suggests activated charcoal is not effective in removing certain toxic organic compounds, fluoride, large amounts of metals or pathogens. Below is a more complete list of what activated charcoal will and will not filter.9 

Activated charcoal will filter:

Certain drugs

Chloramine

Chlorine

Hydrogen sulfide and certain other volatile compounds

Phenol

Small amounts of metals like chelated copper, iron and mercury

Tannins

Activated charcoal will not filter:

Ammonia

Bacteria, protozoa, viruses and other microorganisms

Fluoride

Nitrates

Nitrites

Sodium and most other cations (positively charged ions)

Large amounts of copper, heavy metals or iron

Large amounts of hydrocarbons or petroleum distillates

What Effect Does Activated Charcoal Have on Your Body?

Used since the early 1800s, activated charcoal is well-regarded as an effective treatment for certain types of acute poisoning and overdoses. It can effectively absorb certain toxins in your gut before they are able to enter your bloodstream, potentially saving your life.

Its usefulness applies even for animals, and vets may prescribe activated charcoal in instances when dogs have consumed a toxic and potentially fatal substance such as chocolate. In humans, activated charcoal is highly valued as a treatment for drug overdoses — both prescribed medications and also those available over the counter, such as acetaminophen or aspirin.10

A 2000 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology11 suggests activated charcoal is most effective in helping to mitigate overdoses when administered within the first hour after ingestion. Its effectiveness diminishes over time. Generally speaking, the sooner it is administered, the better it works. That said, you must take caution when using it because it has very powerful absorptive effects.

In most cases, you should administer it only under the guidance of a trained professional, such as you'd reach when calling poison control. With respect to drug overdoses, it's best to call for emergency services and allow the first responders to take the lead on treatment. Another option is to drive the patient straight to the nearest emergency room.

The Risks Associated With Activated Charcoal

Because it is a binder, as mentioned earlier, activated charcoal acts indiscriminately, meaning it can attract and remove beneficial as well as toxic compounds. Especially in tandem with other detoxifying chelating agents, you must be very careful when using it. If you make a habit of taking activated charcoal in through your food and personal care items, be advised it can reduce the absorption of beneficial medications and vitamins and mineral supplements.

Before using activated charcoal on a regular basis, you should consult your doctor, particularly if you take prescription medications or supplements. A 2016 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology suggests activated charcoal, while useful in certain situations, is not quite as universally beneficial as once thought, nor can it be considered risk-free. The study authors stated:12

"Sometimes mistakenly characterized as a 'universal antidote,' activated charcoal is the most frequently employed method of gastrointestinal decontamination in the developed world. Typically administered as a single dose, its tremendous surface area permits the binding of many drugs and toxins in the gastrointestinal lumen, reducing their systemic absorption.

Like other decontamination procedures, the utility of single dose activated charcoal (SDAC) attenuates with time, and, although generally safe, it is not free of risk. A large body of evidence demonstrates SDAC can reduce the absorption of drugs and xenobiotics, but most such studies involve volunteers and have little generalizability to clinical practice. Few rigorous clinical trials of SDAC have been conducted."

Is Activated Charcoal Good as a Toothpaste?

While it may be trendy for some, there is not a great deal of support from dental professionals for the use of activated charcoal as an oral care product, particularly as it relates to teeth whitening. A literature review published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (ADA)13 in 2017 sought to investigate the many "unsubstantiated therapeutic claims" related to charcoal-based oral hygiene products.

The researchers noted some of the claims included assertions that activated charcoal possessed "antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and oral detoxification" properties.

After identifying 118 potentially eligible articles and reviewing a number of scientific studies — claiming outcomes ranging from cavity reduction to enamel abrasion — the study authors concluded there was "insufficient clinical and laboratory data to substantiate the safety and efficacy claims of charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices. Dental clinicians should advise their patients to be cautious when using charcoal."

One of the biggest concerns relates to the abrasiveness of charcoal whitening toothpaste and its potential to damage your enamel. According to the ADA:14

"[U]sing materials that are too abrasive on your teeth can actually make them look more yellow. Enamel is what you're looking to whiten, but if you're using a scrub that is too rough, you can actually wear it away. When that happens, the next layer of your tooth can become exposed — a softer, yellow tissue called dentin."

On the subject of your sensitive dentin, Today's RDH15 (registered dental hygienist) adds:

"[W]hen dentin is exposed, it becomes more decay-prone. Dentin demineralizes at a pH of 6.5, whereas enamel demineralizes at a pH of 5.5. It is very important patients understand that when enamel is gone, it's gone. It doesn't grow back. Only a restoration can cover the discoloration and damage. Further, charcoal may become lodged [beneath your gums]. This may cause inflammation and tissue trauma."

If you are looking for a natural toothpaste or a tooth-whitening solution, a far better option is to use coconut oil. I have often mentioned oil pulling with coconut oil as a superb way to cleanse and flush harmful bacteria from your mouth. This technique is especially beneficial if you've been diagnosed with periodontal disease. You'll be happy to know oil pulling with coconut oil has also been shown to naturally whiten your teeth.

In addition, while coconut oil doesn't impart the minty aftertaste found in most toothpaste, brushing your teeth with it before bed helps kill plaque-causing bacteria. If you want a minty taste, add a drop of peppermint essential oil. If you want more grit, mix it with a little baking soda. (Keep in mind baking soda, like activated charcoal, has an abrasive quality, so use it rather sparingly on your teeth.)

Activated Charcoal May Help Your Gut Recover After Antibiotics

It's well-known that while antibiotics can help save your life, they also are guaranteed to interfere with your gut microbiome. Similar to the indiscriminate properties of activated charcoal, antibiotics also kill off both the harmful bacteria causing your illness and the beneficial bacteria you need to promote gut health and proper digestion. Now, as presented in New Scientist,16 researchers at a Paris biotech company called Da Volterra are working on a special formulation of activated charcoal for use with antibiotics.

While their work is still in the early stages, the team suggests their specially coated tiny bits of activated charcoal not only can clean up antibiotics that make it all the way to your large intestine, but also can preserve your beneficial intestinal flora. Their slow-release activated charcoal, dubbed DAV132, was tested in a clinical trial involving 44 healthy volunteers.

A portion of the test group received a five-day course of the antibiotic moxifloxacin and a twice-daily dose of DAV132. They continued to take DAV132 for two extra days after completing the antibiotics. When compared to participants who took the antibiotic alone and those who received no treatment, the team noted three beneficial outcomes:17

  • DAV132 did not affect the amount of antibiotic present in the bloodstream, meaning it did not interfere with the antibiotic's effectiveness in treating the infection
  • The amount of antibiotic found in the feces of participants taking DAV132 validated its usefulness in mopping up the large intestine and eliminating antibiotics from the body
  • DAV132 preserved about 90 percent of the gut bacteria that was shown to be reduced in volunteers who took antibiotics alone

While this research seems promising, there is more testing to be done before the product would become widely available. In the meantime, you should not take activated charcoal when taking antibiotics because it very likely would prevent the drugs from being effective.

The Best Strategy Is to Reserve Activated Charcoal for Medical Necessities

While you may be tempted to join in on the detoxification craze surrounding activated charcoal products — ranging from baked goods, ice cream and smoothies to deodorants, soaps and toothpastes — your best bet is to only use activated charcoal when it is medically necessary, and only under the supervision of your doctor or another medical professional.

Even when it is used responsibly, activated charcoal can be accompanied by adverse reactions such as bronchoaspiration, nausea, pneumonia and vomiting.18 Rather than take a chance you'll inadvertently create a health hazard by using activated charcoal arbitrarily, I advise you to save it for occasions when it is truly needed. For more information on heavy metal detoxification, check out my interview with Wendy Myers, a functional diagnostic nutritionist and detox expert.

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