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Medically Reviewed byMelinda Ratini, DO, MS
You can find activated charcoal in all sorts of places. From food and toothpaste, to supplements and personal care items, this jet-black powder looks like what you use on a backyard grill, but it isnt the same. Its made from natural ingredients like coal, coconut shells, or wood pulp, and broken down into tiny pieces.
The charcoal is activated when its heated to a very high temperature. This changes its structure. Heating gives the fine carbon powder a larger surface area, which makes it more porous. This lets the charcoal collect toxins, chemicals, and other unwanted materials, like smells from stinky feet and odors in the fridge.
Activated charcoal can help in some emergency poisonings or drug overdoses. If you get it into your system within an hour, it can trap some of the toxins and keep your body from absorbing them. An ER doctor might give it to you through a feeding tube, which goes down your throat and into your stomach. But it isnt a cure-all. Charcoal doesnt seem to help clear acid, iron, lithium, alcohols, alkali, or toxins in gasoline from the body.
Some studies show that activated charcoal can help with gas and indigestion. But other studies disagree. A mix of charcoal and the gas-relieving drug simethicone seems to help ease pain, gas, and bloating. But activated charcoal can also cause vomiting, so for some people, it could make an upset stomach worse.
You might try mixing charcoal powder in food — like smoothies or baked goods — in hopes of dropping your LDL, or bad cholesterol. Some research shows that activated charcoal can keep your body from absorbing cholesterol. But study results are mixed on whether taking activated charcoal can lower your cholesterol levels.
Sometimes youll find activated charcoal mixed into a cocktail. Yet, its also in some hangover remedies. But it doesnt seem to absorb alcohol very well. Some research shows that drinking it at the same time as alcohol might lower blood alcohol levels somewhat. But that wouldnt help the next morning.
Some people claim that brushing with activated charcoal helps whiten their teeth. But there are no published studies to back up this natural whitening claim. Instead, the fine black powder might settle in tiny cracks in teeth. That would make your teeth look darker instead of lighter.
Scientists have studied activated charcoal to see if it helps with a condition during pregnancy called cholestasis. If you have this liver problem, bile doesnt flow as it should. The most common side effect is serious itching. The goal is to find out if charcoal would bind to the bile acids to help get rid of them. Well need more research to know if it works.
Some research shows that using activated charcoal in bandages can help heal certain leg ulcers. It might also help stop the smells that come from infections. Other studies have had mixed results on whether charcoal can help with ulcers or bedsores. Some skin creams and washes with activated charcoal promise to clear up acne. But theres little science to back up those claims.
You can often find activated charcoal mixed into soaps and deodorants to help soak up smells. Its also common in shoe inserts that claim to be able to do away with stinky feet. Some people even take it by mouth in hopes that it will stop body odor. But there are few studies that say it works.
Water filters often have a layer of activated charcoal. It can help remove chlorine, heavy metals, and other substances from tap water. In the same way charcoal removes those unwanted items, it might be able to absorb smells in the refrigerator or from the air.
Activated charcoal may help the kidneys work better by cutting the amount of waste that they have to filter. It might be especially helpful for people who have kidney disease.
Activated charcoal is likely safe for most people if you only use it for a short time. There are some possible side effects, like constipation. In rare cases, it can cause blockages and dehydration. It also can stop your body from absorbing some drugs. Check with your doctor before starting it if youre taking medicine.
5) Christoph Burgstedt / Getty Images
7) m-imagephotography / Getty Images
Consumer Reports: Activated Charcoal Isnt a Magic Health Bullet.
The Western Journal of Medicine: Activated Charcoal — Past, Present and Future.
McGill Office for Science and Society: What Is Activated Carbon?
Clinical Toxicology: Position paper: Single-dose activated charcoal.
Mayo Clinic: Charcoal, Activated (Oral Route).
Current Opinion in Pediatrics: Activated charcoal for pediatric poisonings: the universal antidote?
UCLA Health: Does Activated Charcoal Help with Gas and Bloating?
University of Utah Health: Should You Be Eating Activated Charcoal?
Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology: Correlative studies of the hypocholesterolemic effect of a highly activated charcoal.
Human Toxicology: Does alcohol absorb to activated charcoal?
Academy of General Dentistry 2015 Annual Meeting: Activated Charcoal as a Whitening Dentifrice.
Cochrane: Interventions for treating cholestasis in pregnancy.
European Scientific Journal: Medical and Environmental Applications of Activated Charcoal: Review Article.
QJM: An International Journal of Medicine: Role of activated charcoal in limiting the progression of chronic kidney disease in experimental albino rats.
British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: Activated charcoal for acute overdose: a reappraisal.
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