It was once a tool for cave drawings and paintings. It’s also been used for smelting and working of metals and producing glass. It’s more recently served as a fuel for heating and cooking. But today charcoal seems to have more fired-up, healthful purposes. You can’t turn down an aisle without seeing a product that boasts the benefits of using activated charcoal — whether it’s toothpaste, face masks, detox drinks, even ice creams. It’s sometimes hailed a superfood, turning these products appropriate shades of goth. So is it just another health fad, or is there proof in the goop?
Activated charcoal is not the same charcoal used to light your barbecue, says Dr. Timothy Stirneman of Compassionate Dental Care in Lake in the Hills, Illinois.
“The kind you buy from a hardware store has not been ‘activated’ by processing it at very high temperatures and also contains additional additives that are poisonous,” he says. “Activated charcoal is a supplement with a variety of uses. It is a fine black powder made from coal, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, bone char and olive pits.”
Scientists use activated charcoal to speed up chemical reactions, says dermatologist Dr. Andrew J. Newman in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Activated charcoal is basically carbon that is in a sponge-like structure,” Newman says. “The ‘chemical sponge’ is able to soak up chemicals. The carbon is like a popular and large party where chemicals are more likely to meet. The emergency rooms across the country then became aware of this, and they use this carbon frequently for poison ingestions.”
Behind the hype
Besides medicinal and scientific uses, activated charcoal has also made its way into our pantries — i.e., as a cosmetic additive to blacken foods, such as charcoal coconut ice cream — as well as bathroom cabinets. But if you use it on your face, you won’t likely see results, says Dr. Rais Vohra, medical director of the California Poison Control System’s Fresno-Madera Division.
“We do see it being used in many food and cosmetic items,” Vohra says. “The claims are generally that it helps to detoxify the skin or body tissues that it contacts. Most of it is hype. The claim is that it can get into pores and bind up oils and dirt particles that get trapped in there. I have not seen any credible evidence that it works better than soap.”
Newman agrees. “In my opinion, there is no verdict yet on whether activated charcoal could be beneficial for the skin,” he says. “We simply have no scientific data saying if there is any truth to this.”
In regard to teeth and eating activated charcoal, the American Dental Association does not approve toothpaste containing activated charcoal and cautions against toothpaste or tooth whitening products that might be abrasive on your teeth.
“We’re still unsure of the long-term side effects, such as erosion of tooth enamel,” Stirneman says. “Charcoal is safe to eat, which is why it’s also now popular to include in detox beverages. However, a high intake over an extended period of time can whittle away the essential vitamins and minerals that are in your digestive system.”
Vohra says charcoal can also cause constipation, so you have to drink a lot of water to ensure it doesn’t stop up the guts, and take only limited amounts. “Do not use charcoal without a doctor’s consent if you have medical issues or a surgical history related to your intestines,” he says.
Without backup, Newman remains skeptic. “At first, activated charcoal had ‘Bologna Health Fad’ written all over it,” Newman says. “Now, I feel it is an intriguing health fad with possible health benefit of the skin. Would I recommend it to my patients? No, not until I see some hard evidence.”