Leisure / July 29, 2019

Activated Charcoal: What It Is, Where It Comes From, and How to Use It

Activated charcoal, also called activated carbon, is a very fine, black powder derived from heating bone char, peat, olive pits, sawdust, or coconut shells to extremely high temperatures. The heating process creates millions of tiny pores on the surface and space for other molecules to bond to. Combined with its toxin-absorbing properties, this makes it excellent for a range of different medical and cosmetic uses.

The main medical use for activated charcoal is for treating poisonings and overdoses in emergency rooms. Since the body isn’t able to absorb charcoal, toxins (like poison) bind to it and then leave the body via the feces. Some studies have also shown that it supports improvements in kidney function among people suffering from chronic kidney disease. However, both these applications should be prescribed by a doctor rather than tried at home.

It’s important to note, too, that activated charcoal is not the same as charcoal that is used in barbecues. Those briquettes often have other ingredients — potentially harmful ones — and are not appropriate for consumption, and they haven’t been heated in the same way.

Activated charcoal that is intended for human consumption is available at most health food stores and natural grocery stores. It often comes in a small container and is extremely messy. The charcoal will stain just about any material, so be careful around towels, clothing, and tile grout. 

How to Use Activated Charcoal at Home

Tooth whitening. The most popular way to use activated charcoal at home is probably for natural tooth whitening. While there isn’t yet sufficient scientific evidence to conclusively state the effects, anecdotal evidence suggests that activated charcoal absorbs plaque and other tooth staining compounds, resulting in whiter teeth. There are two ways to do this. The first is to dip a damp toothbrush into a container of activated charcoal and brush normally (being careful not to spray charcoal all over everything), and then follow that up with your regular toothpaste brush and flossing. The other is to purchase a toothpaste that already contains activated charcoal as a whitening agent.

Face and skin. There is also anecdotal evidence that activated charcoal helps keep skin soft. There are plenty of pre-packaged masks you can use, or mix the charcoal with bentonite clay, water, raw honey, and essential oils for an easy DIY. You can also mix about ¼ teaspoon of activated charcoal into your regular face wash.

Food and drink. There are a number of recipes that include activated charcoal, since it’s safe to ingest. Try including it in drink recipes, like lemonade or cocktails, or even in things like homemade ice cream and waffle cones. However, it’s best to have it only once in a while and avoid mixing it with fruit juices and healthful meals, since the charcoal can bind and prevent the body from absorbing important nutrients. 

If you’re taking charcoal, be sure to drink lots of water to prevent dehydration. It’s also important to take activated charcoal on an empty stomach about 90 minutes prior to meals, supplements, and prescription medications. The binding effect that activated charcoal has can seriously impact the effectiveness of medications if taken at the same time, so let your doctor know that you’re supplementing with it.