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Is Activated Charcoal The Latest Victim of Healthwashing?

 

Have you been seeing this activated charcoal trend popping up? I've been in the nutrition biz for a long time and health trends tend to come and go. One minute it's kale, the next quinoa, the next it's something else. You may have been seeing a dark food trend lately - and by dark I don't mean serious or depressing, but as in the jet-black colour of activated charcoal used in everything from ice cream to pizza crust.

The health claims and applications for activated charcoal are numerous, including detoxification, digestive support, teeth whitening, anti-aging and skin health. But are these health benefits real, or is this another case of healthwashing? Let's talk about activated charcoal and what it can really do for you.

Are the claims in favour of activated charcoal evidence based, or just more healthwashing?

What is Activated Charcoal and How Does It Work?

Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal, or activated carbon, is generally made from, coconut, wood or coal. Processors apply heat and process the carbon to boost its surface area, which makes it much more porous.

Activated charcoal works through a process called adsorption (not a typo - the 'd' is supposed to be there). The charcoal attracts molecules to its very porous surface, binding them up and supporting our bodies to eliminate them. This is different from absorption, where we actually soak up what we're eating and drinking - kind of like a sponge.

You can commonly find activated charcoal in pills/capsules as a supplement (or more likely for first aid applications), powders and in beauty care products.

Activated Charcoal: Is It Healthy?

Activated Charcoal Ice Cream

As I mentioned, there are a load of perceived benefits of activated charcoal. Some companies make it seem like it's a miracle ingredient, but from what I've discovered there isn't a ton of evidence to back up those claims.

Detoxification

Companies and health experts claim that activated charcoal is a detoxifying food, and things like charcoal beverages (lemonade, lattes, etc.) ice cream, waffles, fudge, protein bars, pudding and frosting have been cropping up on the market and on food blogs.

People assume if activated charcoal grabs onto toxins, then surely it can help us detoxify our bodies. However, the problem with using activated charcoal for detox is that it's not selective. It binds to whatever is in your digestive tract and gets rid of it. This might remove some unwanted toxins, but it will also excrete beneficial vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. It therefore also has the potential to interfere with any prescription medications or herbs you're taking.

I'm all on board for detoxing both my body (and my emotional life), but from a nutritional perspective if you'd like to enhance your body's detoxification processes there are many foods available to help you - and these foods target specific areas of the body and specific toxins.

Digestion

Activated charcoal fans say that it can help with gas and bloating, but the studies are mixed about its effectiveness in this area. It's possible that when combined with other compounds, activated charcoal can help with bloating and reduce the odour of our gas (um... did they do a sniff test?), but again, that hasn't been undoubtedly confirmed.

Activated charcoal can be constipating as well, which can lead to the exact opposite of what we want!

Teeth Whitening + dental care

There are a couple of old studies from the 1980s that say brushing your teeth with activated charcoal can help whiten your teeth, prevent cavities, remineralize your teeth and reduce dental pain. However, I couldn't find anything more recent to corroborate this.

A 2017 literature review concluded there doesn't seem to be substantial evidence that activated charcoal can whiten the teeth or benefit oral health. Another warned that rubbing charcoal on the teeth can be abrasive and even erode enamel.

I have my own teeth whitening strategy and I'll stick to it. I'm also a big fan of holistic dental care practices, which include what we eat. You can read more about this from the Weston A Price Foundation.

Hangover Cure

I hate to disappoint you, imbibers, but activated charcoal doesn't bind to alcohol. This means it won't prevent the alcohol you drink from being absorbed, so having another activated charcoal cocktail isn't going to offset the effects of that booze.

Beauty Care (Skin + Hair)

Activated Charcoal Beauty Care

There are many face masks and other beauty care products that declare activated charcoal can help clean and shrink pores, reduce acne, deeply cleanse and absorb toxins on the skin, reduce oiliness, remove hair buildup and hydrate the scalp.

This all sounds great, right? The problem is, I couldn't find any evidence to support these claims (and the beauty care companies promoting them didn't either).

I understand that nutrition science is flawed and can be biased, and natural remedies aren't always fully investigated. Some things may work for you even if there is no science around it, and I encourage people to become their own best health practitioner. I'm no stranger to this myself - I absolutely adore my crystals and there isn't much scientific evidence around that, either.

However, I do have a lot of concerns about the beauty care industry itself. There are so many harmful ingredients in our personal care products that I worry people will purchase these otherwise chemical filled products with activated charcoal believing the benefits outweigh the risks. We are absolutely bombarded with products meant to tighten our skin, reduce wrinkles, moisturize hair, thicken eyelashes, add glow to our cheeks, cover our imperfections, the list goes on and on. Often, these beauty regimes detract from our health more than they add to it.

The good news is there are many natural (and edible) alternatives!

4 Proven Uses For Activated Charcoal

1. Poisoning

Activated charcoal has been long used in hospitals to counteract certain types of poisoning. I take charcoal tablets with me when I travel in case I get food poisoning or a stomach bug.

2. air purifying

The porous structure of the charcoal helps remove bacteria, harmful pollutants, allergens, odours and secondhand smoke from the air. Activated charcoal also absorbs moisture, preventing mold and mildew by trapping the impurities inside each pore.

You can purchase an air purifier, but an easy and inexpensive option is buying charcoal air purifying bags for your home.

3. WATER FILTRATION

Activated carbon is commonly used in water filters. It removes bad tastes and odours, including chlorine. It can also reduce heavy metals such as copper, lead and mercury; parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium, pesticides, radon, VOCS, MTBE, TCE, estrogen, and fluoride.

4. Food Colouring

There aren't many natural grey/black options for food colouring. I use activated carbon for a fun aesthetic, like with my dairy-free tiger tail ice cream.

Activated Charcoal: The Bottom Line

I am always going to take a food-first approach. If you want to detoxify, improve digestive health, nourish your skin and more, there are a multitude of foods and recipes that will help you do that. The recipes on my blog and these books would be a great starting place..

If you're going to take activated charcoal, I recommend working with your health care practitioners to ensure you are using it safely. And if you want to enjoy foods coloured black by charcoal- enjoy. Just know that the black crusted pizza is not detoxing your body in any way.

Activated Charcoal

Photo credits: iStock
Ice Cream: a_namenko
Lemonade: Rimma_Bondarenko
Make-Up: Anna-Ok
Burgers: laperla_foto
Charcoal Basket: armcreation

4 Responses to “Is Activated Charcoal The Latest Victim of Healthwashing?”

  1. This was so so good and such an informative read, Meghan! I always love to read these kinds of articles from you! As a nutritionist, I hear so many new health claims daily and some of them sound truly ridiculous, while others pick up so much momentum, I am sometimes guilty of taking them at face value. So thank you for reminding me of the importance of doing your own research!! <3 PS: I used activated charcoal while in Bali after getting food poisoning and it helped me get better in 1 day. But when I experimented taking it as a preventative every day after that, constipation ensued. So lesson learned :p.
  2. Hi Meghan, I love that you have both debunked the myths and given solid advice here in your delicious, juicy voice - backed by real scientific evidence. I also employ Weston A Price dental methods and believe digestion is key. As a health practitioner, I often see clients who come to me with their baggie of health support 'products' or asking me about the 'purity' of skin care which CLAIMS to be pure - yeah, pure chemical lies. Meanwhile, here in Australia, we have a government commissioned group reporting that natural health is all placebo and without scientific evidence. SIGH! I guess all we can do is continue to explain things clearly, rationally and hope that sense prevails. Thanks for your voice of reason in the mix!
  3. Kate Brownell said… October 21, 2017
    Nice article though I was reading about Dr. Axe post on the same subject few days back and then landed to this post https://teethbright.com.au/10-uses-activated-charcoal-know/ which also talks about "10 Uses Of Activated Charcoal You Should Know" and finally here. I must say there were few doubts about this charcoal and now its quite crystal clear that there isn't any harm to try it for whitening my stained teeth.
    • As I mentioned in the post, I couldn't find any scientific evidence about teeth whitening. It may not cause harm, I am just questioning whether charcoal does everything that everyone claims. Dental care is about more than what we apply to our teeth!

Before you post your comment, please note that I am unable to offer nutritional advice or recommendations via my blog.

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