When scrolling online or browsing through stores, you can’t help but notice the charcoal trend. From beauty products, ingestible capsules, and even toothpaste, this black product is making headlines everywhere. While we call it charcoal, the product that consumers regularly use is called active or activated charcoal. So, don’t worry, it’s different from the barbecue grill variety. According to Certified Dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frey, “It’s the result of burning carbon-rich material like wood at low heat without oxygen. It creates a non-porous carbon substance. Heat up this substance with steam (oxygen) in a pressurized environment and activated charcoal is the result. Unlike charcoal, activated charcoal is porous, filled with many tiny sponge-like spaces or pores. All these little spaces within activated charcoal create a large surface area that is particularly helpful for soaking up substances.”
Activated charcoal doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. So, we spoke with a handful of experts about all the possible ways to use charcoal—and if you should.
“Although there is little, if any, scientific evidence proving efficacy, manufacturers often claim that activated charcoal in skincare products can absorb oil from skin pores, draw out dirt that other cleansers cannot reach, and remove toxins,” says Dr. Frey. “Some manufacturers go so far as to claim that activated charcoal has anti-aging properties.” After reviewing dermatologic literature, Frey believes that there is no significant scientific evidence proving that the claimed benefits of topically applied activated charcoal in skincare are sound and true. “No scientific evidence proving any benefits of topically applied activated charcoal could be found. [But] there was no evidence finding it harmful, either,” she says.
Dr. Frey’s best skincare advice? “Moisturize, apply daily sunscreen, live a healthy lifestyle (eat a healthy diet, get adequate sleep, exercise regularly), and if you have a little disposable income and wish to have fun with a trendy, skincare product that contains activated charcoal, go for it!”
Various charcoal products have popped up in recent years claiming to lower how many toxins you consume. For example, water bottles with charcoal filters claim to filter out free radicals and other rogue substances that may negatively impact our health. While activated charcoal does have adsorption capabilities, the jury’s still out on whether it can act as a filter for negative particles over positive ones like nutrients.
“Activated charcoal ensnares chemicals and toxins in its millions of microscopic pores. A misconception is that it absorbs the toxins. It doesn’t,” says Board-Certified Cardiologist Dr. Luiza Petre. Instead, “it operates through the body using the chemical process of adsorption. This is the reaction of toxins, chemicals, nutrients, and elements absorbed and assimilated into the blood. When elements bind to a surface they are absorbed. Activated charcoal’s porous surface has a negative electric charge, thus making positive charged gas and toxins adhere to it.”
All the little spaces within activated charcoal create a large surface area that is particularly helpful for soaking up substances.
Essentially, whenever food or drink (including both nutrients or toxins) are taken simultaneously with charcoal, the elements attach to the charcoal. They are then carried along the digestive tract. This rids the body of harmful bacteria. However, it’s also stealing from the body any chance to absorb healthy nutrients, as charcoal doesn’t discriminate between the two.
If you ever find yourself traveling abroad to places where food can be easily contaminated by the region’s water, this is where consuming charcoal may be of beneficial use. Whereas, if you’re consuming a nutritious kale salad at home along with your charcoal lemonade, you may be robbing your body of nutrients obtained from the salad.
For a Late Night Out
Now that we know that activated charcoal takes elements of food and drink along for the ride, it’s easy to assume that this might be beneficial when cocktails come into play.
While “activated charcoal cannot absorb alcohol, it does, however, remove the artificial sweeteners and chemicals that are common in the mixers,” says Dr. Petre. “When taken at the same time as that cocktail, it has been shown to drastically reduce blood alcohol concentrations. Another bonus, by removing the toxins from mixers and sulfites in wine, it could help with the severity of a hangover or completely alleviate it.”
Petre acknowledges that this news might make the average drinker throw all caution to the wind. Drinking without a hangover? Sounds great. But proceed with your typical boundaries. “Your body’s severe reaction when you go over your limit is your warning to stop,” she says. “If you alter the threshold, the negative consequences of drinking both physically and socially could drastically escalate.”
It’s all about being responsible. If you’re someone who would be using charcoal with a glass or two of wine (and can control consumption) this can be beneficial to your body. Plus, it could help avoid painful headaches from sugar intake.
For Dental Purposes
If you’re active on social media, you’ve probably seen funny (or horrifying) videos of people brushing their teeth with pitch black paste. According to Dr. Anatolij Koniouchine, founder of Rockcliffe Dental, brushing with charcoal may be more harmful than we think if not done properly. “While Charcoal whitening has been a huge trend recently, the abrasiveness of the mineral can actually damage the enamel of your teeth if it’s scrubbed against them. If you are going to use activated charcoal, it is important to only lightly graze teeth during application, in order to prevent scratching, chipping, or other damage.”
In addition to this, consider alternating days you brush with charcoal with days you brush with regular paste.
For Your Time Asleep
The activated charcoal trend is widespread. In fact, it’s even filtered into bedding. Companies like Signature Sleep have launched products that feature charcoal-infused memory foam. The idea is that adding charcoal to bedding will help eliminate odors caused general use and wear, as well as help to regulate body temperature as you sleep. This technology is still up in the air but it’s a promising venture. If nothing else, charcoal can help to absorb unwanted moisture (from sweat) and could potentially extend the life of a mattress.
The sheer pervasiveness of activated charcoal proves it’s probably not going anywhere soon. As with any trend, proceed with knowledge and moderation before jumping in head first.