Activated Charcoal: Myths and facts on the blackest substance there is

Activated charcoal seems to have gained the attention of media and celebrities alike, as the ultimate remedy for teeth whitening, skin brightening and body purifying. This is mirrored by the trend on social media to display more and more charcoal based food and beauty products, usually identified by their pitch-black colour.

From the automotive industry to the pharmaceutical one, activated charcoal already encompasses a wide spectrum of uses and it is expanding to new ventures. Unsurprisingly, in a booming segment projected to reach a global market value of 6.2 USD billions in 2022, it is somehow symptomatic for certain myths to arise, and for the properties of activated charcoal to be exaggerated, if not completely made up.

Activated charcoal does not enhance the properties of lemonade
In this article, we will give a definition of activated charcoal, stating what its actual properties are and when and how it should be used, debunking some of the most common myths surrounding this fine black powder, which is today used in products ranging from skin creams to ginger lemonades.

The properties of activated charcoal

Let us be clear on one point: activated charcoal is completely different from the charcoal we use in our barbeques. Rather, this kind of charcoal is “activated” by burning natural sources of carbon at higher temperatures than average. This process breaks charcoal into fine powder and changes its internal structure, thus activating it. Activated charcoal particles are more porous and therefore more absorbent.

Its absorbing properties are what make activated charcoal especially useful for removing toxins from the body. Microscopically, activated charcoals particles have a negative electrical charge, which causes positively charged molecules to be attracted and “trapped” within the pores. Since the human body does not absorb charcoal particles, toxins are expelled together with them, thereby purifying the body.

Activated charcoal to absorb toxins
This process makes activated charcoal a particularly effective method to remove toxins stemming from drug overdoses and poisoning, as long as the poison has been orally consumed. Furthermore, by eliminating toxins before these reach the kidneys, activated charcoal promotes kidney function – a property particularly beneficial in patients with chronic kidney conditions.

However, activated charcoal does also attract non-threatening substances, like fundamental nutrients, minerals and vitamins, making the food or drinks that we ingest poorer in nutritional values. Furthermore, it can also bind to medicines’ molecules, like in the case of contraceptive pills, thus reducing or eliminating their effects.

How and when you should use activated charcoal

The first and major point of activated charcoal, which is seldom remembered, is that its effectiveness is based on the timing with which one ingests it. Activated charcoal intake long after or before we have eaten or drunk any kind of substance will likely have very little effect on our body. Furthermore, as our body cannot absorb it, charcoal would simply pass from one end of the body to another purposelessly.

As the only clinically tested purposes of activated charcoal intake are for toxins absorption and gas reduction through oral ingestion, this substance should be considered as effective only in these two instances.

Chai charcoal latte

Debunking charcoal myths

Given the properties, timing and effects of activated charcoal ingestion, many myths can be easily debunked. For the sake of simplicity, we have chosen to debunk the three most popular ones, widely believed by the majority of activated charcoal users
  1. 1. The first is the common belief that activated charcoal is great for hangovers. This myth is false on the ground that during hangovers alcohol has long been absorbed by our body, so charcoal does not have any toxins to absorb. Actually, it can make hangovers worse, as some of the side effects of excessive activated charcoal ingestions are constipation and nausea.
  2. 2. Another commonly believed myth is that charcoal is healthy and enhances the beneficial effects of a healthy meal. This conviction is based on the popular opinion that being slimmer equals being healthier. In reality, activated charcoal sticks to many of the nutrients contained in healthy meals, which the body subsequently expels, thus giving us the impression of having eaten less and in an healthier manner, much to the detriment of those nutrients our body actually requires.
Activated charcoal bread used for slimming
  1. 3. Other popular home uses of charcoal are for skin treatments, teeth whitening and oral health. In case of the former one, only limited medical evidence has been found on the argument, and with very limited effects. Regarding the role of activated charcoal for teeth whitening and oral health, its uses are based on anecdotal reports. What’s more, a report of 2017 stated that no scientific evidence was found to support this argument.
Activated Charcoal fo oral hygiene
Therefore, just because activated charcoal is said to have multiple beneficial properties and only minor side effects, it does not mean that one should use it for non-verified purposes, which can either have no effect or be harmful to one’s body.

Bottom line, unless you have ingested poison, drugs or other harmful substances, activated charcoal will do very little for your health and will only blacken your meals and drinks.

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