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What Does Activated Charcoal Actually Do?

It’s showing up in toothpaste, shampoos, wellness products and even in our food. Companies tout the ingredient as a cure-all. Here’s what it really does.

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Activated charcoal lemonadePHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

The truth about activated charcoal

Over the last couple of years, social media feeds have been flooded with food and wellness trends. One of the strangest—and most prolific—may well be those images of goth-black ice cream infused with activated charcoal. 

It turns out, though, that this was just one particularly photogenic moment for activated charcoal. Scan the shelves at your local drugstore and you’ll see the ubiquitous ingredient in cleansers, masks, shampoos, conditioners, deodorants and toothpaste—in brands both big-box and boutique. 

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Activated charcoal powder and creamPHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

What is activated charcoal, exactly?

Over the last several years, Japanese and Korean beauty rituals have migrated to the North American cosmetic market, which may partly explain why we’re seeing activated charcoal in so many products—it has long been used in those countries as a purifying ingredient. But there’s another reason for its recent popularity: marketers know we’re suckers for anything novel. “Activated charcoal is highly Instagrammable,” says registered dietitian Abby Langer. “It’s that simple.” 

The charcoal in activated charcoal is created by burning carbon-rich materials such as wood, peat, bamboo, coconut shells and olive pits, transforming them into a concentrated black substance. Then the charcoal is “activated” by steaming it at high temperatures, which opens up its carbon structure and makes it porous, full of nooks and crannies that can bind all kinds of gunk (dirt, oil, odour-causing bacteria) on its surface. 

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Woman putting on activated charcoal face maskPHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Does it really improve beauty products?

Despite glowing anecdotal reports of clear, luminous skin from nutritionists, personal trainers and celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow, there is no clinical evidence for the effectiveness of activated charcoal as a beauty ingredient. There simply hasn’t been any substantive research or large studies to investigate the claims.  

Likewise, there is no good evidence showing that using charcoal products for oral health will make your breath fresher or teeth whiter. In a CBC story last year, the Canadian Dental Association wouldn’t recommend using charcoal products because there are no demonstrated health benefits, and they may even be too abrasive and damaging to your enamel. 

According to Langer, if you’re seeking brighter skin, a whiter smile and a healthier gut, drinking plenty of water every day and eating high-fibre foods is a safer and healthier way to go. “Spend your money on food that is whole and minimally processed,” she says. “And be assured that we’re not walking around with pounds of sludge in our body to detoxify.” 

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Baked goods made from activated charcoalPHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Is it safe to eat activated charcoal?

In addition to ice cream, activated charcoal is used by restaurants and food brands to turn pizza crusts, ramen broth, burger buns, cold-pressed juices and cocktails a deep black hue. So before you shell out extra cash for an activated charcoal-boosted lemonade, remember that you’re paying for its appearance: there’s no scientific evidence for the “detox” action it promises. 

“It’s not going to hurt you,” says Langer, “but it’s not going to have the effect you might think it’s going to have, so what’s the point? Especially when you’re paying a premium for a bunk ingredient.” 

Health Canada spokesperson Marie-Pier Burelle has a more positive take: “Products that contain activated charcoal are considered to have benefits that outweigh the risks associated with them, when they are used as advised.” 

Ultimately, you can’t really get sick from, or ingest too much, activated charcoal. 

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Activated charcoal toothpaste on toothbrushPHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Is there any proven use for it, then?

In the ER, doctors sometimes feed an activated-charcoal paste to patients who have been poisoned or are overdosing on prescription medication. If done quickly—ideally within minutes but up to an hour after ingestion, while the substance is still in the stomach—the paste prevents the body from absorbing it. 

So yes, activated charcoal might save your life. However, casual users should know that it doesn’t bind with ethanol or alcohol, so it won’t magically erase the effects of late-night imbibing. Also, be aware that it doesn’t discern between the bad and the good: it will bind with blood-pressure medication and birth-control pills and flush them through your system, too.

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Dove activated charcoal antiperspirantPHOTO: COURTESY DOVE

What are the popular products?

Despite a lack of any hard scientific evidence, companies have rushed to release a wide variety of activated-charcoal products that promise an equally broad variety of benefits.

Charcoal face scrubs

BKIND, a Montreal-based maker of skin-care products, offers a purifying face scrub that includes activated charcoal, claiming the ingredient “cleans your pores deeply, fights acne and leaves a matte finish on your skin.”

Charcoal toothpaste 

Crest’s 3D White toothpaste is just one of a plethora of activated-charcoal dental products on the market—including floss and brushes—and promises the ingredient will “gently whiten” your teeth.

Charcoal pizza

Pizza Nova offers a crust dubbed Carbone, Italian for “charcoal.” The Canadian franchise doesn’t suggest it brings any health benefits, but does claim that the dough’s “lighter and airier texture” make it easier to digest.

Charcoal antiperspirant

To promote its charcoal-infused antiperspirant for men, Dove hedges its bets, suggesting only that the ingredient is “known to act like a natural purifier.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada