In the past few years, whenever you open a healthy lifestyle magazine, you’re likely to read about activated charcoal. It appears mostly as a teeth whitener, but there are all kinds of health and products touting its benefits. What is it and are the claims about its effectiveness legitimate?
What’s activated charcoal supposed to do?
Activated charcoal is made from carbon combined with gases and exposed to extremely hot temperatures. This “activates” the carbon, giving it tiny pores that boost the surface area of nutrients and the carbon’s ability to “catch” toxins. When consumed, activated charcoal acts like a sponge, absorbing harmful substances and clearing them out of the gastrointestinal tract. It’s used by medical professionals when someone ingests a dangerous amount of a drug or poison. This is real detoxification, and not the buzzword you’ll see everywhere that doesn’t really mean anything, because no one defines what those “toxins” are.
Activated charcoal for toxins
However, people are now using activated charcoal to “detox” from everyday chemicals. Gwyneth Paltrow included a recipe for “charcoal lemonade” on her website Goop in 2014, calling it one of the “best” juice cleanses. For $9, you can buy a 16-ounce bottle of premade charcoal lemonade. That’s not cheap, but does the drink at least work? Science says no. To actually remove toxins, you would need to drink a much larger amount of charcoal. That being said, if you hadn’t been poisoned, you could actually remove good minerals and vitamins from your body. Activated charcoal binds vitamins C, B1 and B6. The charcoal can’t distinguish between bad substances and good ones. Its ability to absorb toxins has also only been studied in poisoning situations and it only effects the gastrointestinal tract.
Skincare and toothpaste
So, drinking activated charcoal isn’t the best idea. What about the use of it in skincare? Charcoal cleansers and face masks are popular these days, and supposedly “draw out” toxins from the skin. However, there hasn’t been a lot of studies on its effectiveness in this area, but at least it doesn’t seem to harm the skin. It’s also cheap, unlike charcoal lemonade.
What about charcoal in toothpaste? People turn to the ingredient because it’s more natural than traditional bleaching with peroxide. Once again, there isn’t any solid data on charcoal’s antibacterial benefits, and using a toothpaste that’s so gritty could cause you to rub off your tooth’s enamel. That doesn’t come back, and your teeth end up looking yellower than ever.
Why are people buying up products with activated charcoal when there’s so little evidence that it works? Society has become terrified of “toxins,” and chemicals, which supposedly are everywhere and build up in our bodies. The reality is that yes, chemicals are everywhere, but everything is a chemical. That doesn’t mean all chemicals are toxic. This fear also ignores the fact that our bodies naturally fight against what’s harmful, and if you’re doing your best to stay healthy through a good diet, exercise, etc, you don’t need extra help with stuff like activated charcoal. It doesn’t hurt to use it in a product like skincare, as we mentioned, but there are ways that it can cause more harm than good.
Here’s what to take away from the story of activated charcoal:
Activated charcoal is only proven to help with true detoxification, which means it absorbs and removes overdoses of poison.
Activated charcoal might be good for the skin, but there’s no solid evidence. You shouldn’t drink it or use it on your teeth.
Everything is chemicals.
Just because something is “natural,” it doesn’t mean it’s beneficial.
A lot of people are calling this activated charcoal fad an example of “pseudoscience.” For more on the pseudoscience trend, check out this article in Gildshire’s healthy lifestyle magazine.