What is activated charcoal and should I be eating it?!

You may have seen activated charcoal in lots of places lately. That black ice cream cone? Charcoal. Dark, gothic looking lattes? Charcoal. Black toothpaste? Charcoal. Black face masks? Also charcoal.

Since activated charcoal seems to be found in lots of different places, let’s learn a little bit more about this new trend!

So what is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal can be made from coconut shells, peat, coal, olive pits, sawdust, or bone char. It is then exposed to extremely high temperatures which creates an exceptionally porous substance with high surface area. Due to the high surface area and porous nature, activated charcoal easily binds to substances in the gastrointestinal tract. This binding decreases absorption of those substances.

While this internet sensation looks visually appealing, there are numerous health benefits touted as well.

Rose mattson - charcoal ice cream

The internet tells us that activated charcoal can:

  • Be used as a treatment for poisoning and overdoses
  • Reduce bloating and gas
  • Decrease your blood cholesterol levels
  • Treat bile flow problems
  • Prevent hangovers
  • Improve kidney function
  • Trap “toxins”
  • Whiten teeth
  • Be used for mold cleansing (this is apparently mold that grows in your body and can cause depression, kidney and liver failure, decreased brain function, heart disease, eye irritation, headache, vomiting, impaired immune system, and severe respiratory distress)
  • Provide anti-aging properties
  • Be used as a digestive cleanse

Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well, that is your first red flag my friend. Let’s take a look at the research.

In terms of poisoning and overdoses…

Activated charcoal is indeed used in the hospital setting as a treatment for overdoses and poisoning. According to the Mayo Clinic, activated charcoal helps to prevent certain poisons from being absorbed into the body. Several doses of activated charcoal may be needed to treat severe poisoning and it is not effective for ingestion of strong acids, iron, boric acid, lithium, petroleum products, or alcohol overdoses.

Sorbitol is often added to activated charcoal in emergency situations, according to the the National Poison Control Center, which improves the flavor of the charcoal. However, sorbitol is also a laxative and may cause severe diarrhea. Additionally, the charcoal flavor is said to taste terrible and patients often experience nausea and vomiting directly after taking it.

Most importantly, both the Poison Control Center and the Mayo Clinic, state that activated charcoal should only be taken when in correspondence with the Poison Control Center, a physician, or in the emergency room. There are very specific dosages, timing, and medication interactions which require professional experience.

There is sufficient research to support the use of activated charcoal for overdoses and poisoning BUT only under the supervision of a professional.

Let’s take a look at the kidney function claim.

In an animal study, researchers found that supplanting with activated charcoal helped to remove urinary toxins for those with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). Researchers suggested that research needs to continue into the human population.

Another study looked into supplementing with activated charcoal along with a low protein diet for patients with end-stage kidney disease. The study population of elderly patients (80+) had improved kidney function outcomes after 10 months of supplementation.

The National Kidney Foundation does not support supplementing with activated charcoal and no further evidence was found to support this claim.

In conclusion, evidence to support of the use of activated charcoal for kidney disease is weak. More research needs to be done before supplementing with activated charcoal to improve kidney function.

What about teeth whitening?

Rose Mattson - charcoal toothpaste

Charcoal toothpastes have been anecdotally stated to decrease cavities and to have antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and oral detoxification properties.

However, in a 2017 review by the Journal of the American Dental Association, there was insufficient clinical and laboratory data to support the safety and efficacy of using charcoal-based toothpaste. They concluded there is a need for larger and better-designed studies to make such a claim. They also encouraged dentistry professionals to use caution with their patients who wish to use charcoal products.

Summary: don’t use charcoal-based toothpaste!

What about reducing gas?

There has been talk that taking activated charcoal with food helps decrease gas. There are mixed results for studies regarding charcoal and gas production. One study found that supplementation with activated charcoal and magnesium oxide improved symptoms of indigestion such as abdominal bloating.

However, there is not enough evidence to support the use of activated charcoal to decrease gas.

What about the rest of the claims listed below?

  • Decrease your blood cholesterol levels
  • Treat bile flow problems
  • Prevent hangovers
  • Be used for mold cleansing
  • Provide anti-aging properties
  • Be used as a digestive cleanse


The above claims didn’t have any scientific-basis behind them. Thus, while there are some reports of activated charcoal helping some of these problems, there is no science to support them.

Rose Mattson - charcoal lemonade

Is taking activated charcoal safe?

This  study explains that activated charcoal is not just particular to “toxins” and will simply bind and excrete anything in the digestive tract, in particular vitamins and minerals. Additionally, this study states that activated charcoal may bind to certain medications and render them less effective. This binding means the substances become inactive since they are not absorbed, which is not good!

How much to take?

Consumer Reports explains that the dosage given in the emergency room is typically 100-200 times the amount you would get in a supplement form over-the-counter. However, if you are thinking of taking a charcoal supplement, absolutely consult your physician first.

My recommendations:

Tips to reduce gas and bloating:

  • Focus on whole foods, with an emphasis on fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean protein. If you are consuming beans, make sure you soak them before you eat them! If you are someone who uses a sugar-free gum, try taking a break for a few days.

To whiten teeth:

  • Talk to your dentist about a safe and scientifically-proven method.

To improve skin:

  • Eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Move in a way that feels good and drink plenty of water. See a dermatologist for further questions.

To detox:

  • You already have that covered! Your built-in kidneys and liver do a great job.

Thoughts? Questions? Please comment below! Have a great week!

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