If you’ve been on social media lately, you might be asking yourself: What is up with all the charcoal products?
Ancient Egyptians used charcoal to successfully rid the body of poisons due to its antibacterial, antifungal properties. Activated charcoal is created by heating “common charcoal”—a product of peat, wood, coconut shells, etc.—in high-temperature gas to increases its surface area by creating porous holes. Once “activated,” the charcoal works by absorbing other materials into these pores. The ancient Egyptians were onto something—even today, activated charcoal is commonly used in hospital emergency departments to treat certain types of poisoning (research shows that it's often more effective than stomach pumping).
Today, activated charcoal is showing up in myriad applications, from whitening toothpaste to facial masks, and even on pizza and blended into lattes. But just because it has real medical uses, should we be signing up to put it in everything we touch?
Here are 4 facts health experts want you to know before you decide to introduce activated charcoal into your hygiene, diet, or beauty regimen.
01. Activated charcoal can whiten your teeth . . . too much.
Dr. Jennifer Dean, a dentist at Rancho Santa Fe Cosmetic & Family Dentistry, says, “In terms of whitening, activated charcoal, like baking soda or any abrasive, may offer some immediate change in color. However, these products can also damage enamel over time. As enamel becomes thinner, the underlying dentin will begin to show through and result in a darker or yellower looking tooth.” Enamel erosion is irreversible. As an alternative, Dr. Jen recommends dental whitening products “designed to diffuse within the tooth without damaging the enamel.” Look for ingredients like hydrogen peroxide and calcium phosphate in your teeth-whitening ingredients list rather than charcoal.
02. Use sparingly.
There have been only small-scale studies on activated charcoal’s ability to improve digestive health issues like gas and bloating. Based on these and his experience with clients, Dr. Will Cole, a functional medicine practitioner, says that “used in the suggested small amounts, activated charcoal is a safe product.” He recommends using “activated charcoal with no added fillers and from reputable, high-quality brands.” Look for activated charcoal made from coconut shells or identified wood species that have very fine grains. Still, proceed with caution: when not used properly, activated charcoal may flush out more than necessary.
03. There can be side effects—and they aren’t cute.
Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND, Associate Clinical Professor at the Department of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine warns against consuming activated charcoal as a daily supplement. He says, “There are various possible side effects like vomiting, constipation, blockages in your intestine, or diarrhea. You simply should not use activated charcoal if you're not in an acute situation and if you are, get medical help rather than trying to self-treat.” Because of its binding ability, activated charcoal can disrupt the absorption of medications you may be taking, even common Tylenol, which could cause even more issues. A better approach, says Dr. Ayoob, is not to “tox” at all. He reiterates a truth we know well: there’s no substitute for a healthy lifestyle.
04. Face products are best for oily or combination skin—not sensitive skin.
Dermatologic surgeon and RealSelf contributor Dr. Sejal Shah says, “Charcoal draws out oil and debris from your skin and also exfoliates, so think of it like a deep detoxifying cleanser for the skin.” Dr. Shah explains that with the skin, “Charcoal works by a process called adsorption (not to be confused with absorption), an electrical attraction that causes substances to stick together, so basically it acts like a magnet for dirt, oil and other impurities on the skin.” The treatment can be drying, so it’s best for combination or oily skin. Masks tend to be more effective than cleansers, “because adsorption depends on physical contact so charcoal needs to sit on the skin to be effective.” Dr. Shah recommends a Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask or Boscia Charcoal Makeup Melter once or twice a week.
Overall, while activated charcoal is deemed safe and nontoxic, we can’t be sure of any long-term effects. If you want to give it a try, it's safe to use in moderation (but maybe not on pizza). Apparently, age-old wisdom wasn't totally wrong.