Last summer, activated charcoal was a slightly weird, but probably harmless trend—you could even find it in Instagram-worthy ice cream. But now, it’s become firmly established as a health/beauty/wellness staple and, well, we’re not exactly here for it.
You’ve probably seen vloggers testing charcoal face masks, heard so-called health experts touting the detoxifying qualities of charcoal pills or seen a jet-black charcoal-infused “detox tonic” on the menu at your favourite juice bar. It’s understandable if you’ve fallen for the Insta-bait and taken a walk on the dark side. These products look pretty inviting, after all. But can activated charcoal really do your complexion (or your health!) any good? Well, about that…
“Activated charcoal has been used for hundreds of years in medicine,” says Kate McLaird, a naturopath with Toronto Wellness Centre. “If someone shows up in a hospital emergency room with alcohol poisoning, or even a Tylenol overdose, it’s a first-line treatment,” she says. “It’s very effective at ridding the body of potentially harmful toxins.”
Here’s how it works: Activated charcoal is typically made of wood or coconut shells that have been burned, or “activated,” to create a porous byproduct. “The process creates a molecule with a really large surface area that toxins can bind to,” says McLaird. One teaspoon of activated charcoal is estimated to have more surface area than a football field. That equates to plenty of space to catch toxins and prevent them from being absorbed by your body.
Those charcoal face masks (probably) aren’t working any black magic
“On the skin, the idea is the same,” says Allison Sutton, a dermatologist in Vancouver. “The charcoal is supposed to absorb the oil and dirt and impurities, and when you wash it off all those things are to get washed off as well.” Unfortunately, there’s no science to back this up and, when you think about it, the theory doesn’t even make sense, she says. “The activated charcoal comes in a face mask or cleanser, so it’s in a tube or packet full of other ingredients, so it’s already absorbing whatever ingredients are in there. How is it going to absorb anything more off your skin?”
That’s why a pricey bar of black body soap or clarifying shampoo touted for its charcoal content probably isn’t going to work any miracles, she says. A charcoal cleanser or serum designed to treat acne may be worth a shot. But honestly? The other ingredients in these prods are likely more important. “Look at the label and if they also contain ingredients like salicylic acid or glycolic acid, those are the ones to try,” says Sutton. At the very least, you’ll know it contains proven acne-fighting ingredients, regardless of how well the charcoal itself is working to clear up your skin.
Similarly, charcoal toothpastes are said to remove plaque and bacteria from around the gum line based on the same binding principal—but there aren’t any studies to back up their efficacy, either. “For now, we just don’t have the evidence to show that beauty products with activated charcoal do what they claim, and I don’t like to recommend products unless I know they work,” says Sutton.
What activated charcoal can do
When it comes to activated charcoal pills, there is some research to back up their potential medical applications outside of the ER. In a 2012 study, people with excessive gas issues took activated charcoal before intestinal ultrasound exams, which researchers say reduced the bloating that would otherwise obscure the examiner’s view. And a 2014 animal study found rats had significant reductions in intestinal inflammation and damage, following a regimen of activated charcoal.
But can activated charcoal pills really reduce your tummy troubles, as the social media wellness gurus claim? “They do work well to relieve intense gas pain or diarrhea related to food poisoning, for example,” says McLaird. She also gives activated charcoal pills to patients with intestinal dysbiosis, where there is a bacterial overgrowth in their gut or intestines, to help remove some of the harmful bacteria. She stresses that activated charcoal is best used for temporary relief of gastrointestinal symptoms – it’s not intended for long-term use. If you have frequent troubles with bloating, gas or diarrhea, it’s important to suss out the cause, because activated charcoal “is not a cure,” she says.
Although it may not be able to remedy tummy troubles—or, for the record, help you lose weight or “detox” your body, despite what you may have read—there is something else activated charcoal can do: “It can absolutely help you with a hangover,” says McLaird. “If you take it before you go to sleep, you can catch a portion of whatever you drank before its absorbed into the blood stream,” she says. “This isn’t to say it will totally prevent a hangover, but it may decrease the intensity of what you feel the next morning.” How much you should take to best counteract the cocktails is tricky to figure out, though. Go with the general dosage info on the packaging for starters, or talk to a natural health practitioner for more accurate dosing. And if you do decide to try it, stick to the pills, because a fancy bottle of black lemonade isn’t going to cure a night of drinking.
Use caution on the dark side
Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley may be fans of activated charcoal drinks, but there’s no proof they’ll clear your system, give you an energy boost, or anything else. What’s worse, the so-called detox juices infused with activated charcoal may contain even fewer nutrients than your usual drink. “I don’t understand these because you’re binding some of the really good vitamins and minerals you’re trying to get from the juices,” says McLaird. Ditto for charcoal ice cream, hot dogs and just about any other trendy charcoal-black foods.
There’s no real health risk in taking activated charcoal, but it has been known to cause constipation, so if you’re taking it regularly, be sure to drink lots of water. There’s also cause to be wary if you’re taking any prescription medications. Even if you’re not popping your pills at the same time, the activated charcoal can reduce the efficacy of your meds, with potentially serious consequences, says McLaird. “For anyone who is taking a lot of pharmaceuticals, I won’t recommend activated charcoal as a therapeutic.”
Bottom line: the benefits of activated charcoal are a bit of smoke and mirrors. It’s probably not harmful to use a face mask to combat an oily complexion, or pop a few activated charcoal pills post-holiday party to help with bloating (or too many cocktails). But it’s definitely not the wellness cure-all that our Insta feeds seem to think it is.
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