Many of us know about activated charcoal today, thanks to toothpaste brands that market it as a teeth-whitening agent and face-mask makers who swear by its pore-cleansing abilities. Activated charcoal health drinks are also widely available in the market now.

However, many of the claims made by these brands are unsubstantiated—more research needs to be done on the efficacy of activated charcoal to cleanse or exfoliate the skin once the powdered charcoal has been added to a face wash or mask, for example.

So where does all the hype around activated charcoal come from?

Reportedly, activated charcoal has been used for medicinal purposes since 1500 BC, when it was used on infected wounds. In modern times, though, scientists discovered the power of activated charcoal to absorb gases and colours out of liquids in the 1770s. French chemist Michel Bertrand is said to have been the first person to show the effectiveness of activated charcoal against poisons in 1811—according to the literature, he ate activated charcoal with 5g of arsenic trioxide and lived to run another experiment with charcoal and strychnine (a poison) the next year.

(During World War I, doctors used activated charcoal to treat respiratory problems in soldiers who had inhaled poisonous gas—doctors caution against unsupervised use of activated carbon for respiratory problems now, as improper use may cause chronic lung disease.)

Since then, people have used activated charcoal to treat dental problems like yellowing teeth and skin troubles like blackheads and clogged pores. Most importantly, activated charcoal is still used to treat some types of drug overdose and poisoning in hospitals.

Indeed, activated charcoal powder is on the World Health Organization List of Essential Medicines for its potential to treat cases of poisoning and drug overdose: activated charcoal can help after an accidental overdose of several medicines like amphetamines, tetracycline antibiotics, ACE inhibitors, antidepressants and paracetamol. (However, it is not effective in the case of alcohol poisoning, or accidental ingestion of cleaning fluids, petrol, kerosene or boric acid.)

The fact is that activated charcoal can do this because it has remarkable porosity (many tiny, tiny holes) and a very large surface area—these factors give activated charcoal extraordinary powers to bind with toxins and other chemicals. This power is known as adsorption which literally means the quality of a solid substance to hold on to or bind with a gaseous or liquid one.

Read on to know more about the benefits and side-effects of activated charcoal.

  1. What is activated charcoal?
  2. Health benefits of activated charcoal
  3. Activated charcoal side-effects

Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is basically burnt carbon—it could be made from a coconut shell that becomes absolutely black in a havan fire or by burning peat coal or wood or even tamarind seeds at very high temperatures (going into hundreds of degrees Celsius). The resulting carbon is then “activated” through a physical or chemical process. This activation makes the grains very porous—it has several tiny holes in it that increase the surface area to about 1000 square meters for every gram of activated charcoal. Super-activated charcoal can have a surface area of about 3,500 square meters per gram.

This massive surface area is the reason why activated charcoal is considered excellent for binding with toxins. It is also used in air filters and water purification for this reason.

The particles of activated carbon are superfine, soft and jet black. They are quite bland to taste, though they can leave a slightly muddy taste in the mouth if consumed in a health drink or used to brush teeth.

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The long history of its medicinal use, unfortunately, means that some benefits have wrongly become associated with activated charcoal. For example, activated charcoal is popularly considered to be effective against diarrhoea and stomach gas—doctors now know that this is inaccurate and activated charcoal has no effect on these conditions.

Here’s a look at the benefits versus hype around activated charcoal:

Activated charcoal to treat poisoning

Activated charcoal is sometimes used in hospital emergency rooms to treat different types of poisoning—because of its large surface area and porosity, the activated charcoal adsorbs (binds with) toxins in the stomach and does not let them reach the bloodstream. Some of the toxins and drug overdoses that are treated with activated charcoal are:

Activated charcoal may be used in a single large dose or prescribed as two-six tablets by doctors.

There are some types of poison that activated charcoal cannot protect against. For example, activated charcoal is not effective in the case of alcohol poisoning, or accidental ingestion of cleaning fluids, petrol, kerosene or boric acid.

Self-medication is not recommended, as a medical professional will be able to correctly diagnose an overdose or poisoning, its cause and accordingly determine the right dosage.

Activated charcoal for kidneys

These days, activated charcoal drinks are also available in the market. Though their usefulness as health drinks needs to be thoroughly researched, the conjecture is that the high adsorption power of activated charcoal helps to get rid of toxins from the stomach and intestines, thus reducing the workload on the kidneys.

Further, studies on animal models with chronic kidney disease (CKD) have shown that activated carbon tablets may be useful for kidney patients, to:

  • Reduce systemic inflammation, oxidative stress and endotoxemia (disruption of intestinal barrier that allows gut bacteria to enter the bloodstream)
  • Reduce “atherosclerotic burden”—atherosclerosis is cholesterol plaque build-up in the blood vessels. Kidney injury or disease can increase the risk for atherosclerosis.

Reportedly, doctors also use it to reduce excess phosphorus from the blood of kidney disease patients.

Activated charcoal for peanut allergy

Research done at St Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, Canada, in the early 2000s found that activated charcoal could neutralise the effects of peanut proteins in people with peanut allergy to some extent. The lab research indicated that activated charcoal could slow down the allergic effects after accidental ingestion but did not suggest that people with a peanut allergy could safely eat peanuts with activated charcoal or even treat peanuts related anaphylaxis with activated charcoal.

Activated charcoal for skin

Many claims have been made about the efficacy of activated charcoal to treat blackheads, whiteheads, acne and dandruff, in addition to cleansing and exfoliating the skin and slowing down ageing. Researchers are divided on this, though.

“For centuries, charcoal has been used as an antidote for poisonings, but now companies claim that charcoal-containing products can treat acne, dandruff, and others; however, clinical evidence does not support these claims,” wrote Nelson Sanchez, Rachel Fayne and Brandon Burroway in the March-April 2020 issue of Clinics in Dermatology, a peer-reviewed journal.

Scientists and experts who stand by the usefulness of activated charcoal for healthy skin say this is because the adsorption power of activated charcoal can absorb dirt and excess oil and remove dead skin, leaving the skin clean and clear of pimples.

Here’s what you need to make a DIY face mask at home

  • 1 tablespoon activated charcoal
  • 1 tablespoon calcium bentonite clay
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2-3 drops tea tree oil (optional)
  • Water
  • A mixing bowl and spatula

How to do it:

  • Mix the activated charcoal and bentonite clay in a bowl.
  • Now add the tea tree oil (if your skin is dry, substitute this with another essential oil of your choice).
  • Add the honey and a little bit of water to form a thick but smooth paste.
  • Apply on the face and leave it on for 15 minutes.
  • Wash it off with room-temperature water.

Activated charcoal for teeth

Activated charcoal-based dental cleaning products have gained in popularity. However, the usefulness of these products is under serious doubt: whereas a few scientists say that the adsorption powers of activated charcoal may make it an effective agent for cleaning and whitening the teeth, many others argue that it doesn’t have a significant bleaching effect on the teeth—indeed some researchers found that using charcoal could increase surface roughness of tooth enamel and its use may even lead to other complications like cavities.

You should look out for signs of allergy, though this is rare. Normally, activated charcoal is considered safe for use—both topical use and for eating. However, the hype around it may prompt people to waste money and effort in buying and using it.

Some dental health studies have pointed out unequivocally that using activated charcoal can erode the enamel and result in caries—so it may be best to avoid using activated charcoal on the teeth until there is more convincing evidence on any benefits it might have for dental health.

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  2. Juurlink D.N. Activated charcoal for acute overdose: a reappraisal. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 2016; 81(3):482‐487.
  3. World Health Organization Model List of Essential Medicines 21st List, 2019: 4.
  4. Lapus R.M. Activated charcoal for pediatric poisonings: the universal antidote?. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 2007; 19(2): 216‐222. PMID: 17496769.
  5. Zellner T., Prasa D., Färber E., Hoffmann-Walbeck P., Genser D., Eyer F. The use of activated charcoal to treat intoxications. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 2019; 116(18): 311‐317.
  6. Sumrit Mopoung , Phansiri Moonsri, Wanwimon Palas and Sataporn Khumpai. Characterization and properties of activated carbon prepared from tamarind seeds by KOH activation for Fe(III) adsorption from aqueous solution. The Scientific World Journal, 25 November 2015; 2015: Article ID 415961.
  7. Mayo Clinic, Drugs and Supplements [Internet]. Charcoal, activated (oral route).
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  9. Yamamoto S., et al. Oral activated charcoal adsorbent (AST-120) ameliorates extent and instability of atherosclerosis accelerated by kidney disease in apolipoprotein E-deficient mice. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, August 2011; 26(8): 2491–2497.
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