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What does activated charcoal do?

What does activated charcoal do?

Team ErbologyErbology

You’ll have seen it everywhere in the form of black burger buns, toothpaste and even ice-cream. It’s a food trend that has been around for a while and seems to only be growing in popularity, but what is activated charcoal, and what does it actually do?

November 19, 2020 12:20 pm

A few years ago, being served a pitch-black bread bun might have unsettled a few of us. But these days, activated charcoal is a popular foodie ingredient that has appeared in all sorts of dishes.

It also makes a regular appearance in beauty products and cosmetics, from face masks to charcoal toothpaste, shampoo to skincare.

Not only that, but it’s a very popular health supplement. So, should you be following the trend and picking up products containing this popular, yet mysterious, black powder? What benefits does it have for your body, and where is it best used?

Let’s start with the basics.

What is activated charcoal?

Charcoal is essentially what is left of wood and other plant materials after it has been intensely heated without oxygen. This process is called ‘slow pyrolysis’.(1)

The lack of oxygen stops the wood from catching fire, but it does remove water and other substances. The end result is a black, crumbly mass which is 85-98% pure carbon.(1)

We use charcoal in this state all over the world, for all sorts of purposes.. Some of the most popular involve cooking, as charcoal produces a lot of heat when burnt and doesn’t produce much smoke. This makes it perfect for barbecues or for chargrilling foods.

You might also have seen it used in a totally different sphere: art. Charcoal is a great material for creating sketches because of its rich, very dark colour. Artists often use it because it allows them to add greater tonal depth to their drawings.

So far, so normal. But why has it become common for people to eat charcoal, instead of using it in one of the more traditional ways?

That comes down to the process of activation, which gives charcoal properties which make it useful in the body.

What is the activation process?

We can ‘activate’ charcoal in a few different ways.

Firstly, we can physically activate it. This involves either a combination of pyrolysis and oxidation, or just oxidation on its own. Oxidation involves exposing the charcoal to carbon dioxide, oxygen or steam at temperatures of usually around 600 – 1200°C.(1)

Alternatively, we can chemically activate it by applying acids like phosphoric acid or sodium hydroxide, followed by pyrolysis.(1)

The point of both processes is to treat the charcoal to expand its surface area. The aim is to make it as porous as possible. Incredibly, there are so many tiny cracks and crevices in activated charcoal that one teaspoonful has the same surface area as an entire football field!(2)

This gives it a fantastic capacity for adsorption.

For those whose high school chemistry is a bit rusty, adsorption is the process by which a substance collects molecules of a second substance in a film on its surface. It’s different to absorption, where the second substance permeates the first completely.

How activated charcoal removes toxins from the body

Edible substances with strong adsorption properties are invaluable when it comes to health. This is because they can travel through the body and adsorb any nasties or toxins, preventing them from being taken into the body.

Activated charcoal is so good at this that it medics use it to help eliminate poisons from the body.

To give an idea of just how powerful activated charcoal is at removing toxins, the WHO includes it on their Model List of Essential Medicines as an antidote for poisonings.(3) It also makes an appearance on Germany’s ‘Bremen List’, a list of five antidotes that emergency rescue services should always keep on hand.(4)

In conclusion, it’s powerful stuff!

Sadly, it doesn’t work on everything. The ability of activated charcoal to adsorb different toxins depends on their chemical makeup. Properties like the particle size, solubility, ionisation and pH of the substance can affect it, as well as the other contents of the stomach.(4)

It’s great at grabbing toxins like nicotine and poisons like ricin, but won’t help with others such as alcohols or heavy metals.

Needless to say, we’re telling you all this simply to demonstrate how powerful activated charcoal can be.

However, if you have ingested a harmful substance and are worried about poisoning, do not attempt to treat yourself. Head straight to hospital and seek medical assistance

Activated charcoal and everyday health

Now we know that charcoal can help remove toxins from the body, how useful is it in everyday life?

Activated charcoal has been used as a natural remedy since ancient times. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, noted its use in ancient Egypt.(5) Nowadays, it’s available as a popular supplement, or is added to foods such as bread, smoothies and drinks.

As a supplement, activated charcoal is associated with ‘cleansing’ or ‘detoxing’ the body. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian have been vocal about their use of drinks containing activated charcoal.(6)

And, given what we know activated charcoal can do in the case of poisonings, that seems to make a lot of sense.

But this is where we need to dig into the science a little more. Activated charcoal does have health benefits, but they aren’t necessarily the ones touted by celebrity food fads.

Charcoal for cleansing

In a nutshell, activated charcoal should not be used as a solve-all ‘cleanse’, as per the recommendations of the Insta-famous.

While it’s fantastic at dealing with extreme cases like poisonings, you should not be eating charcoal every day in the hopes of weight loss, ‘detoxing’ or as part of a juice cleanse. It simply won’t work, and what’s more, you could be doing yourself some damage in the process.

The reason for this is that activated charcoal is not particularly picky about what it binds to. While it will happily suck up toxins, it will also gather up substances you actually want to keep in your body, such as vitamins and minerals.

It can also gobble up some medications such as certain anti-depressants and anti-inflammatories. If you’re taking medicines like these, you may need to absorb a certain dosage for them to be effective. Eating activated charcoal might get in the way and reduce the efficacy of your medications.(7)

The science is pretty clear on this one: don’t eat activated charcoal on a daily basis as part of a ‘cleanse’.

After all, cleansing your body of toxins is the job of your liver, and in healthy people it does this very efficiently.

If you’re interested in natural foods that can help support your body’s ability to cleanse itself, you might want to consider foods that support your liver’s natural function.

A 2016 study found that silymarin, the main flavonoid in milk thistle, improved diet-related liver damage in mice by reducing inflammation.(8)

Related reading

 milk thistle benefits

'There is some scientific evidence that activated charcoal can help with digestive issues like bloating and excessive gas.'

Activated charcoal for digestion

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies released a report into activated charcoal.

They found that, in the general population, ‘a cause and effect relationship has been established between consumption of activated charcoal and reduction of excessive intestinal gas accumulation’.(9)

The jury was out for EFSA on whether there was a similarly strong link between activated charcoal and bloating.

Another study in 1986 found that, in a double-blind clinical trial, activated charcoal was shown to significantly reduce ‘bloating and abdominal cramps attributable to gaseousness.’(10)

However, most in the scientific community agree that more research is needed to confirm the effect.

Activated charcoal for skin

In recent years, activated charcoal has become one of the most popular and widely-used ingredients in skincare. From face masks to scrubs, you can find charcoal in pretty much everything in the skincare aisle.

Many of these products claim that the charcoal within will cure acne, draw out oil and remove impurities from the skin. The evidence for this seems to be mostly anecdotal; some users swear by charcoal’s ability to cleanse their skin, while others don’t seem to see any effect at all.

There is little scientific evidence to support activated charcoal’s benefits for the skin.

That said, one study in 2016 found that wound dressings with activated carbon (another name for activated charcoal) managed to help heal wounds in patients where other antimicrobial dressings had been ineffective. In the study, the signs of infection were significantly reduced in four weeks.

The study suggests that the reason the dressings were more effective was activated charcoal’s ability to attract and bind bacteria to its surface. This enabled the bacteria to be removed when the dressing was changed.(11)

This suggests that activated charcoal’s adsorption properties might have some applications for skin health, but more research is needed.

One thing that activated charcoal has going for it when it comes to skincare is its texture. When milled into a powder, it makes a great natural exfoliant which sloughs dead skin cells off the face or body. As it’s natural, you can also rest assured that your exfoliator won’t be contributing to the level of micro-plastics in the ocean.

Activated charcoal and cholesterol

Several scientific studies have suggested that activated charcoal has a positive effect on cholesterol levels.

A quick refresher on cholesterol: there are two types. The good kind of cholesterol is called HDL, and can decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke. LDL, on the other hand, is the bad kind, and can increase your risk of both diseases.(12)

A 1986 study followed seven patients with hypercholesterolaemia (high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol) who took activated charcoal over a period of four weeks.

At the end of the study, ‘Plasma total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol decreased by 25% and 41%, respectively, whereas HDL-cholesterol increased by 8%.’(13)

A similar study in 1989 appears to back up these findings.(14) However, both subject groups were quite small. For the results to be really conclusive, they would need to be replicated in a larger study with more participants.

Charcoal for your health

Activated charcoal has shown promise in a number of health-related areas, including digestion, skincare and lowering cholesterol. Many countries around the world have used it as a natural remedy for centuries and continue to use it to treat minor ailments like an upset stomach.

Scientific studies have provided evidence that activated charcoal can offer significant benefits in terms of excess gas and lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol.

However, more scientific research to back up all the health benefits that anecdotal evidence suggests activated charcoal can provide.

If you’re keen to give activated charcoal a try, make sure you source it from a reputable, organic provider who won’t be adding any chemicals to the charcoal during processing.

Our activated charcoal powder is 100% organic and sourced from willow (Salix viminalis).

If you are taking prescription medication, you should also speak to your doctor before trying activated charcoal to make sure there won’t be any unwanted interactions.

Related reading

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