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The beauty industry is all abuzz about activated charcoal. It’s the main ingredient in face masks, moisturizing creams, supplements, and certain whitening toothpastes. You’ll also find it in soaps, car fresheners, and shoe deodorizers. No matter where you shop, you’re likely to be inundated with the latest beauty craze. But does it live up to the hype?
What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is used for medical purposes. It’s made by heating regular charcoal (which is made from peat, coal, coconut shell, wood, bone, or petroleum) to a high temperature with gases such as steam or air. The result: an expanded surface area that has been “activated” and can attract and bind toxins.
Uses of Activated Charcoal
The following are common uses of activated charcoal:
|As an antidote
|For years, activated charcoal has been used as an antidote to many poisons. It is also successful at treating drug overdoses. It works by binding drugs, poisons and other toxins to it, which allows them to be flushed safely from the body.
|As an exfoliant
|“While there are a lot of products that now make use of activated charcoal, its main use is as an exfoliant,” says Rajani Katta, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. While other products tout activated charcoal as an effective skin cleanser, Katta is wary. “There’s actually little published research on its skin cleansing abilities,” she says.
|As a wound-healer
|According to Katta, activated charcoal has also been used “as an ingredient in specially formulated wound care dressings.”
Although more research is needed to prove their effectiveness, other potential uses of activated charcoal include:
- Preventing hangovers
- Reducing and preventing gas
- Reducing cholesterol levels
- Treatment of cholestasis (a condition experienced during pregnancy in which the woman experiences irregular bile flow.)
BUYER BEWARE: Not Everything Written About Activated Charcoal Is True
As with most commercial products, it’s important to take advertising promises with a grain of proverbial salt. Often, the claims aren’t backed up by research (see “Will Activated Charcoal Whiten Teeth?” sidebar). “For example, some cleansers have advertised that charcoal “works like a magnet,” says Rajani Katta, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “However, research in other areas, such as water purification, has found that it uses absorption, a process that relies on weaker forces than magnetism. This process is also impacted by a lot of other factors, such as temperature and pH.”
Is Activated Charcoal Good for Your Skin?
“Think of activated charcoal like a sponge,” suggests Patricia Farris, M.D., Clinical Associate Professor at Tulane University School of Medicine. “Because of its chemical structure, it has the ability to absorb oil, dirt, and other impurities that collect on the surface of the skin. It’s great for oily and acne-prone patients.” Those who have dry skin, however, may want to steer clear. Activated charcoal tends to leave skin feeling dry, she says. If you suffer from clogged pores, though, you may benefit from the exfoliant nature of activated charcoal, Katta says.
Side-Effects of Activated Charcoal
In general, short-term use of activated charcoal is safe for most people. Side effects rarely appear unless it’s being used long-term (e.g. to treat excessive gas). These include:
- Black stools
- Black tongue
- Gastrointestinal blockage
- Regurgitation into lungs
That said, activated charcoal can also interact with other drugs (e.g., acetaminophen, digoxin, theophylline, and tricyclic antidepressants) and nutrients, preventing their absorption. Also, products containing activated charcoal, when used externally, “can cause skin irritation, especially in those with sensitive skin,” says Katta.
Will Activated Charcoal Whiten Teeth?
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Possibly, but the jury is still out on this one. It’s likely that the “whitening” effect some notice after using activated charcoal toothpaste is merely a result of removing stains on the surface of the tooth. That means it’s producing a short-lived improvement. What is more worrying, however, is the fact that brushing your teeth with activated charcoal-containing toothpaste can lead to cavities. These toothpastes tend to lack ingredients (i.e. fluoride) necessary to prevent tooth decay.
After reviewing 118 clinical studies on the use of charcoal and charcoal-based toothpastes, researchers from the University of Maryland found “insufficient clinical and laboratory data to substantiate the safety and efficacy claims” of these products. They concluded their review by warning dentists to “be cautious” when using charcoal-containing products due to their “unproven claims of efficacy and safety.” The take home: put down the activated charcoal toothpaste. If you want whiter teeth, talk to your dentist.
ACTIVATED CHARCOAL WON’T RID THE BODY OF ALL POISONS
Although activated charcoal works wonders at combating certain poisons, an article published in the British Medical Journal found “Charcoal will absorb most poisons, at least to some extent – though laboratory studies suggest that lithium, iron, cyanide, and strong acids and alkalis are the exceptions.” In other words, activated charcoal is not effective at absorbing the following toxins:
- Iron tablets
- Poisons that consist of strong acids
- Poisons that consist of strong bases
If you or someone you know has been poisoned, call your local poison control center immediately and head to the hospital.