By Dr. Mercola
Charcoal is often used in creating metals or serving as a heat source for grilling foods. However, did you know that it has medicinal purposes too? Egyptian records as early as 1,500 B.C. showed that a type of charcoal called activated charcoal was already being used to absorb unpleasant odors from putrefying wounds.1
Nowadays, activated charcoal is making waves in both the medicine and cosmetic industry because of its supposed ability to improve your body’s appearance and wellbeing. In this page, you will learn how activated charcoal is made, what its benefits are and how much of it you should ideally take.
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a byproduct of slowly burnt wood, peat or coconut shells treated with oxygen. This results in charcoal that’s highly porous and nonpolar, enabling it to adsorb or bind to toxins and odors from gases or liquids that are up to 1,000 times its weight.2 The resulting powder is tasteless and odorless.3
What activated charcoal does is it allows harmful drugs and toxins lurking in the body to bind to it, so that these damaging elements can be expelled. Its porous surface has a negative electric charge that attracts positively charged ions and gas.4 This is why activated charcoal is often used among patients who suffered from drug overdose or poisoning, since it assists the body in eliminating these unwanted materials.5
Activated charcoal powder and activated charcoal capsules, which are both taken orally, are widely available nowadays. There are other forms of activated charcoal too, such as granules and cubes, that may purify the environment, and sponges and fabrics that may cleanse the skin.6
Activated Charcoal Benefits You Should Know
✓ May work as a poison antidote: Activated charcoal is known for trapping harmful chemicals and toxins in its tiny pores, a chemical process called adsorption. In this process, activated charcoal adsorbs chemicals and toxins from your bloodstream so they will no longer cause harm to your body.
Activated charcoal works through the entire length of stomach and both intestines, and is said to reduce the amount of poisonous substances by as much as 60 percent.
✓ Helps promote a healthier digestive system: Activated charcoal can eliminate toxins the body gets from chemicals in drinks, pesticides in foods and pollutants from the air. This helps increase energy levels, improve mental function and even relieve joint pain.
✓ Works against the effects of toxic mold: Mold in your surroundings can cause health issues like depression, memory loss, decreased brain function, kidney and liver failure, eye irritation and weakened immune system function. Activated charcoal can help eliminate toxin build-up caused by mold
Prior to using this supplement, consult a physician first to fully check your symptoms. Talk to a professional to evaluate a mold situation as well, especially if you and other family members have been exposed to it at home, so that the situation can be properly dealt with.
✓ Helps prevent premature aging: Activated charcoal can have anti-aging properties, as it aids with supporting adrenal gland health and preventing cellular damage to kidneys and liver.
✓ Aids with treating alcohol poisoning: Although it does not absorb the alcohol itself, activated charcoal has been utilized to treat cases of alcohol poisoning since it binds to and flushes chemicals out of the body.
Did you know that activated charcoal can be used for purifying and filtering water as well? It’s actually a common ingredient in water filter systems for industrial or home use because it can trap pesticides, solvents, industrial waste, chemicals and other impurities.10 Activated charcoal has also shown promise in eliminating fluoride in tap water, which is a toxic chemical that can cause severe health impacts if consumed excessively.
But while activated charcoal may benefit you in more ways than one, take note that it’s not a “magic cure,” as writer Corey Pemberton emphasizes.11 If you want to significantly improve your health, you need to focus on improving your lifestyle by eating healthy foods and maintaining a regular exercise routine.
How to Use Activated Charcoal for Personal Hygiene
• Improve appearance and cleanliness of teeth: You can use activated charcoal to whiten your teeth too, because it may absorb stain-causing plaque and microscopic compounds. Although activated charcoal can turn your teeth and mouth black temporarily, it will wash away quickly.
Using activated charcoal for cleaning and/or whitening teeth may lead to better oral health, and prevention of gum disease, bad breath and cavities, since it also changes the pH balance in your mouth. However, activated charcoal toothpaste must be used cautiously and in moderation because it can be very abrasive and may damage the enamel of your teeth.
Instead, carefully mix activated charcoal powder with water to form a paste, dab it onto teeth and let it sit for three minutes before rinsing. Avoid ingesting the paste too, especially if you are taking other medications.
• Try using it as a facial mask. Activated charcoal face masks are becoming popular nowadays, especially among people who want smoother skin and clearer complexion. It’s said that activated charcoal may be used for treating acne, since it can bind to and remove skin impurities.14
According to dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah, an activated charcoal mask can adsorb and act like a magnet towards dirt, oil and other impurities, although this ability depends on physical contact, so you might want to let activated charcoal to sit on the skin for it to be effective.15
• Help treat bug bites: Combining activated charcoal with coconut oil and adding it to bandages can help relieve bee stings or mosquito, fire ant or spider bites.
Studies on Activated Charcoal
Initial information about activated charcoal’s adsorbent properties were described as early as the 1700s, with the first clinical applications already occurring a century later.16
Michel Betrand, Pierre Touery, William Hort and Sir Alfred Barring Garrod were responsible for some of the earliest studies regarding activated charcoal. Most research during this era discovered activated charcoal’s potential in counteracting clinical effects of poisoning in animals and humans.
In particular, it was reported that Touery swallowed a lethal dose of poison called strychnine in front of his colleagues at the French Academy of Medicine. He eventually survived because he also drank activated charcoal, proving that it can counteract poison.17
Today, activated charcoal is likely effective for catching chemicals to prevent instances of poisoning when used as a part of a standard treatment, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. This organization is responsible for rating the effectiveness of any item or substance used for medicine based on scientific evidence. The scale of measurement is as follows:18
2. Likely Effective
3. Possibly Effective
4. Possibly Ineffective
5. Likely Ineffective
7. Insufficient Evidence to Rate
However, the database found insufficient evidence regarding activated charcoal’s ability to resolve the following issues:
• Lowering cholesterol levels: Some studies do not seem to agree about the effectiveness of oral activated charcoal intake in reducing cholesterol levels in the blood.
• Decreasing gas or flatulence: There are studies that show activated charcoal’s ability to reduce intestinal gas. A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 1986 that highlighted its potential in preventing intestinal gas after eating a gas-producing meal.19 However, there are studies that do not support this claim.
• Treating cholestasis or reduced bile flow during pregnancy: Early research reports have discovered that oral activated charcoal intake can help with treating cholestasis during a pregnancy, but there’s not enough evidence to support this statement.
• Preventing a hangover: Activated charcoal may have the potential to remove toxins like artificial sweeteners, chemicals and other substances from the body, and help relieve a hangover. It’s also included in certain hangover remedies, although experts are still skeptical on how it would work, since activated charcoal does not seem to trap alcohol well.
Despite these remarks, it’s still important to keep an eye on or research on other studies surrounding activated charcoal and its other potential capabilities, like these:20
• Activated charcoal as chronic wound dressings:21 Published in the Journal of Wound Care, this study involved two separate, randomized controlled trials composed of 60 patients each that both used the same hydrocolloid as a control.
One trial compared Actisorb, the first available wound dressing containing activated charcoal (but without silver), with the control on chronic pressure ulcers. The other trial compared Actisorb Silver 220 (already containing silver) with the control on chronic venous leg ulcers. Patients were then followed for four weeks.
Overall, the activated charcoal wound dressing was said to be better tolerated compared to the control. Clinical data highlighted the potential of using silver dressing combined with activated charcoal in managing chronic wounds, even those at the debridement stage. This wound dressing may assist in eliminating fluids and toxins that impede the healing process.
• Activated charcoal as an effective adsorbent for inflammatory cytokines:22 This particular study discovered that activated charcoal beads, when used in monolithic columns, were effective in removing inflammatory cytokines directly from the blood. Initial findings revealed that the beads removed 100 percent of IL-8, 80 percent of IL-6 and 51 percent of TNF inflammatory cytokines from the blood.
The body may benefit from this, given that pro-inflammatory cytokines can worsen a disease by triggering fever, inflammation, tissue destruction and even shock or death. Poor regulation of these cytokines was also associated with the onset of diseases like atherosclerosis, cancer, depression and other neurologically related effects.
• Activated charcoal for treating a case of acute psychotic mania in a 46-year-old woman:23 There was already evidence linking bipolar disorder with an abnormal immuno-inflammatory background, and researchers of this study suspected that the episode of mania happened shortly after a gastrectomy. Changes in the patient’s microbiota and the occurrence of intestinal barrier dysfunction after the procedure may have triggered mania.
The researchers then discovered that because activated charcoal may adsorb inflammatory cytokines in the body and neutralize the effects of inflammatory mediators in the gut, it could help improve manic symptoms and systemic inflammation.
• Activated charcoal and a low-protein diet as a therapeutic option for old end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients:24 Researchers examined the potential of a low-protein diet and oral activated charcoal intake in decreasing serum urea and creatinine levels among senior ESRD patients who refused to start chronic dialysis. The study followed nine lucid senior patients older than 80 years of age who were given a very low-protein diet and an oral activated charcoal dose of 30 grams per day.
These patients did not have significant gastrointestinal symptoms, nor conditions like anuria (complete absence of urine production25), oliguria (reduced urine volume26), edema (swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissues27), significant metabolic acidosis (having too much acid in body fluids28) or hyperkalemia (elevated levels of potassium in the blood29).
After 44 weeks of this treatment, significant decreases in blood urea and creatinine levels were reported, and none of the patients had to undergo emergency dialysis.
Most of the studies conducted on activated charcoal focused on its effects on adults, and not much on children. Guidelines regarding activated charcoal intake for children are often based on case reports and case series.30
Future researchers need to consider how activated charcoal can affect children, since it’s during childhood years when the organs are maturing and developing ways on dealing with toxic drugs and chemicals in the body. It’s important to consult a physician or a health expert first before letting a child take activated charcoal. Some children might not be able to handle this supplement well, potentially causing unwanted complications.
Where to Get Activated Charcoal
You can find activated charcoal supplements and powders at drugstores, grocery stores, health and vitamin shops and websites. The variety of choices, however, can be confusing. It's up to you whether you would want to buy powder or supplements, although both of these have their own pros and cons.31
Buying powder in bulk can save you cash and can be easier to use when applying to your teeth, although it's less convenient compared to capsules. It can also spill on surfaces and make a mess, so be careful when handling it. If you’re combining activated charcoal powder with liquid, shake the mixture well because some bits of powder might have settled at the bottom.32
On the other hand, activated supplements are more convenient, especially if you travel often, because of its portability. The downside is, they typically cost more. Activated charcoal supplements are also good for dental use, although you have to break a capsule open and pour powder onto your brush. This can be time-consuming if you’re in a hurry.33
In general, when buying activated charcoal products, consider its source. Activated charcoal made from organically grown coconuts or wood is the best. Organic raw materials will yield purer and more adsorbent product. Avoid buying from charcoal vendors that do not specify the materials they used to make their products.
There are also activated charcoal products that contain an additive called sorbitol. It works as a laxative that'll get rid of toxins from the GI tract. These are designed for more acute detox situations, such as ingesting a chemical you were not supposed to, and may cause diarrhea and/or nausea if used frequently.
If you can’t find stores selling activated charcoal products near you, you can learn how to make activated charcoal powder at home. Here are some instructions courtesy of Leaf TV:34
How to Make Activated Charcoal Powder
1. Strip a number of coconut shells free of any remaining meat or fiber. Wash them and let them dry completely to remove any dirt.
2. Place coconut shells in a burning sink and burn them at a temperature of 575 to 900 degrees F. Allow the shells to burn for at least four hours until they are complete ash.
3. Remove the ash from the sink and place it in a clean plastic pail. Add enough calcium chloride (CaCl2) or zinc chloride (ZnCl2) 25 percent solution to completely soak the ash.
4. Allow the ash to soak in the chemical solution for one full day. This will transform it into activated charcoal.
5. Remove the charcoal from the pail and place it on a draining tray. Wash and rinse it thoroughly with clean, distilled water to remove all traces of the chemical solution. Allow the water to drain away for an hour or so.
6. Place the charcoal in an oven heated to 215 degrees Fahrenheit, and allow it to bake for three hours.
7. Remove the charcoal and crush it into powder form using a hammer or an industrial blender. The grains should be as small as you can make them.
8. Store activated charcoal in a glass container until you need it.
Ideal Dosage for Activated Charcoal
Prior to activated charcoal intake, consult a physician or health expert so you’ll know how to take activated charcoal. This way, you’ll be able to know if this is appropriate for your condition, and you’ll know the appropriate dosage for a particular age group. Consistent use of single-dose activated charcoal is not recommended, and dosage depends on the condition that the patient experiences, as well as his or her age:35 For adults aged 19 years old and above:
| ||For Gastrointestinal Contamination||For Flatulence|
For Gastrointestinal Contamination: 25 to 100 grams orally or by nasogastric tube once, as a slurry in water
For Flatulence: 500 to 1,040 milligrams up to four times daily as needed
For Gastrointestinal Contamination: Initial dose of 50 to 100 grams orally or by nasogastric tube, as a slurry in water
Maintenance dose of 12.5 grams per hour, 25 grams every two hours or 50 grams every four hours until symptoms resolve
Store activated charcoal capsules away from children’s reach. It must be kept in a closed container at room temperature and away from heat, moisture and direct light, and must not be frozen. If the charcoal is outdated or no longer needed, dispose of these right away.36
Side Effects of Activated Charcoal
Generally, the use of activated charcoal is safe, but only when it comes to treating poisoning or overdose at a health care facility.37 Side effects have been reported after activated charcoal intake, such as pain or swelling of the stomach. People may also notice that the tongue or the stool turns black, but this is usually expected if someone is taking this supplement. Other side effects may also occur, but these often do not need medical attention, and may go away during treatment once the body adjusts to the activated charcoal.38
However, if activated charcoal triggers severe side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, constipation or even a suspected gastrointestinal blockage, talk to your doctor or physician immediately.39
As much as possible, activated charcoal should not be taken alongside other medicines (like acetaminophen, theophylline and tricycline antidepressants) or supplements since it can block the body’s absorption of these. Ideally, take activated charcoal an hour before or at least two hours after taking the medicine. Activated charcoal is also known to interact with other medicines:40,41
✓ Ipecac or syrup of ipecac, which is used to induce vomiting, must not be taken with activated charcoal, until after the vomiting has stopped (waiting time typically lasts for 30 minutes)
✓ Drugs used for constipation, such as cathartics (sorbitol or magnesium citrate), can trigger electrolyte imbalances and other problems when taken at the same time as activated charcoal
✓ Precose (acarbose)
✓ Cancer drugs like Arava (leflunomide) and Avbagio (teriflunomide)
✓ Lanoxin or Digox (digoxin)
✓ Transplant drugs like mycophenolate mofetil and mycophenolic acid
✓ Acetadote (acetylcysteine)
✓ Electrolytes and polyethylene glycole (PEG)
Lastly, avoid taking activated charcoal mixed with chocolate syrup, ice cream or sherbets, since these may prevent it from working properly.42
The full extent of activated charcoal's capabilities is still being determined, but clearly there’s a good amount of evidence that it has potential when it comes to improving your wellbeing. It may not be a magic solution for healing health problems, but it can be a very helpful complementary option if conventional treatments do not suffice.