You may have seen ads on social media promoting the many benefits of activated charcoal with profound claims of ridding toxins from the body or having anti-aging properties. The reason activated charcoal is so popular right now is because of marketing -- bloggers, “nutrition gurus” and other internet sensations have made bold health claims about its positive effects. The product sells without having to prove the health claims -- and because it is reasonably safe, it doesn’t call for epidemiological studies on its safety.
Other bold claims made in the media include:
Relieves diarrhea, gas, bloating and stomach cramps
Rids bad breath and body odor
Removes pollutants and grease from hair
Treats spider bites
Relieves cholestasis of pregnancy
Improves heart health
Calms a hyperactive child down
The truth of the matter is there is not enough scientific evidence to back up all of these claims. The only accurate evidence for activated charcoal is that it has been used to treat emergency overdoses and poisonings since the 1800s. According to PUBMED there have only been 159 human studies conducted over the past 30 years, which show very little research on activated charcoal.
Activated charcoal can be made from a variety of carbon-containing materials such as coal, lignite, rye and wood pulp, all of which have low ash content. It is then broken down into a fine, granular form. To activate the charcoal and remove its impurities, it is further treated with a process using steam, oxygen, carbon dioxide, certain acids and other chemicals. Homemade activated charcoal should be avoided. It is not safe during pregnancy because it has not been evaluated in pregnant woman and those who are breastfeeding. If you choose to buy and use this product, be sure to consult your doctor first to ensure that it does not interact with any medications.
The bottom line is activated charcoal should not be used routinely as part of a daily health plan to eliminate trace toxins, clear skin or improve one’s health. There are a lack of definitive studies showing any benefit other than during an emergency in a clinical setting. Unfortunately, all of the health claims will continue to be based on hearsay.
Written by: Michelle Tran, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern. Learn more about Wellness Workdays and our wellness program offerings by downloading our brochure.
1. PMC US National Liberty of Medicine National Institutes of Health
2. PubMed Health
3. Mayo Clinic