We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.
Activated charcoal is a fine, odorless, black powder often used in emergency rooms to treat overdoses. Its toxin-absorbing properties have a wide range of medicinal and cosmetic uses, though none are scientifically proven.
Superheating natural sources of carbon, such as wood, produces activated charcoal. The black powder stops toxins from being absorbed in the stomach by binding to them. The body is unable to absorb charcoal, and so the toxins that bind to the charcoal leave the body in the feces.
This article will discuss some of the ways people use activated charcoal, its potential benefits, and if there are any risks.
Activated charcoal is not the same substance as that found in charcoal bricks or burned pieces of food.
The manufacture of activated charcoal makes it extremely absorbent, allowing it to bind to molecules, ions, or atoms and remove them from dissolved substances.
Making activated charcoal involves heating carbon-rich materials, such as wood, peat, coconut shells, or sawdust, to very high temperatures.
This “activation” process strips the charcoal of previously absorbed molecules and frees up bonding sites again. This process also reduces the size of the pores in the charcoal and makes more holes in each molecule, increasing its overall surface area.
As a result, one teaspoon of activated charcoal has about the same surface area as a football field.
But due to its powerful toxin-clearing properties, some advocates have proposed activated charcoal as a treatment for an ever-growing list of conditions.
There is not sufficient conclusive, large-scale research to establish the benefits of activated charcoal. Many over-the-counter (OTC) products rely on the basic chemical principles of activated charcoal to defend their benefit claims.
A few of the uses of activated charcoal supported by some evidence include:
1. Kidney health
Activated charcoal may be able to assist kidney function by filtering out undigested toxins and drugs.
Activated charcoal seems to be especially effective at removing toxins derived from urea, the main byproduct of protein digestion.
More research is needed, but some animal studies show that activated charcoal may help improve kidney function and reduce gastrointestinal damage and inflammation in those with chronic kidney disease.
In another 2014 study, rats with induced chronic renal failure were fed mixtures containing 20 percent activated charcoal. They experienced improved kidney function and a reduced rate of kidney inflammation and damage.
2. Intestinal gas
Activated charcoal powder is thought to be able to disrupt intestinal gas, although researchers still do not understand how.
Liquids and gases trapped in the intestine can easily pass through the millions of tiny holes in activated charcoal, and this process may neutralize them.
The study showed that the examiners were able to see certain parts of some of the organs better with the ultrasound after the activated charcoal treatment. It said intestinal gas would have obscured these organs before the treatment.
Some 34 percent of the participants who were given the activated charcoal to reduce their gas also had improved symptoms.
The research is still limited, but a panel of the
There is no set way to use activated charcoal for intestinal gas, but the EFSA recommends taking at least 1 g 30 minutes before and after each meal.
3. Water filtration
People have long used activated charcoal as a natural water filter. Just as it does in the intestines and stomach, activated charcoal can interact with and absorb a range of toxins, drugs, viruses, bacteria, fungus, and chemicals found in water.
In commercial settings, such as waste-management centers, operators often use activated carbon granules for one part of the filtration process. Dozens of water filtration products are also designed for at-home use, using carbon cartridges to purify water of toxins and impurities.
While this shows the effectiveness of carbon filtration, it should be noted that in the U.S., adding fluoride to community water supplies of many cities has improved the oral health of millions of American citizens.
Given its use as a gastrointestinal absorbent in overdoses and poisonings, it follows that some people might propose activated charcoal as a treatment for diarrhea.
In a 2017 review of recent studies on the use of activated charcoal for diarrhea, researchers concluded that it might be able to prevent bacteria and drugs that can cause diarrhea from being absorbed into the body by trapping them on its porous, textured surface.
The researchers also pointed out that activated charcoal had few side effects, especially in comparison with common antidiarrheal medications.
5. Teeth whitening and oral health
Dozens of teeth-whitening products contain activated charcoal.
Many oral health products that contain activated charcoal claim to have various benefits, such as being:
Activated charcoal’s toxin-absorbing properties may be important here, but there is no significant research to support its use for teeth whitening or oral health.
In a 2017 review, researchers concluded there was not enough laboratory or clinical data to determine the safety or effectiveness of activated charcoal for teeth whitening or oral health.
6. Skin care
Researchers have reported that activated charcoal can help draw microparticles, such as dirt, dust, chemicals, toxins, and bacteria, to the surface of the skin, which makes removing them easier.
Various activated charcoal deodorants are widely available. Charcoal may absorb smells and harmful gases, making it ideal as an underarm, shoe, and refrigerator deodorant.
Activated charcoal is also reported to be able to absorb excess moisture and control humidity levels at a micro level.
8. Skin infection
Around the world, many different traditional medicine practitioners use activated charcoal powder made from coconut shells to treat soft tissue conditions, such as skin infections.
Activated charcoal may have an antibacterial effect by absorbing harmful microbes from wounds.
In the emergency room, doctors may sometimes use activated charcoal to treat overdoses or poisonings.
Activated charcoal can often help clear toxins and drugs that include:
- NSAIDs and other OTC anti-inflammatories
- calcium channel blockers
- carbamazepine (Tegretol)
- malaria medications
- methylxanthines (mild stimulants)
Activated charcoal cannot bind to all types of toxins or drugs, especially ones that are corrosive.
Drugs and medications that activated charcoal cannot help clear include:
- petroleum products, such as fuel oil, gasoline, paint thinner, and some cleaning products
If a person is conscious and alert, doctors may give them a drink made with a powdered form of activated charcoal mixed with water. Medical staff can also administer activated charcoal mixtures via feeding tubes in the nose or mouth if necessary.
An individual must take or be given activated charcoal within
No one should ever try to treat an overdose or poisoning at home.
To date, there have been no adverse reactions noted with activated charcoal in any of its various forms.
Activated charcoal products are available for purchase online.
People taking medications should talk with a doctor before taking oral activated charcoal products, as these may interfere with absorption of their medication.