What Are Activated Charcoal Pills—And Are They Actually Good For You?
Charcoal was one of the stars of skincare since last year when black masks, body bars, cleansers, and scrubs hit the beauty scene. Beauty companies praised it for cleaning and refreshing oily and acne-prone skin, and social media couldn’t get enough of its chic potential.
At this point, we’re used to this black stuff getting rid of our impurities on the outside. But now, activated charcoal pills and powders are claiming to be the new trendy way to clean out (that’s right) our insides.
Not only are people purchasing OTC charcoal pills and taking them like a multivitamin with their morning joe, some hipper-than-thou coffee shops, bars, and even pizzerias are putting the powdered form into everything from chai tea, cocktails, and lemonade, to donuts and pizza. So if you’ve noticed a surge of black food on your IG feed, you have activated charcoal powder to thank.
But we’re not talking about the stuff used to fire up your braai. While all charcoal is, in essence, just burnt organic matter, activated charcoal has been exposed to much higher temperatures, explains registered dietitian Wesley Delbridge, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
That process gives the charcoal a very porous surface that acts as a magnet, binding with everything it can get its claws on, Delbridge explains. And because activated charcoal isn’t absorbed by your digestive tract, it (and all the gook it picks up as it moves through your intestines) passes right through, he explains.
Eating activated charcoal isn’t altogether new. “Activated charcoal powder has been used in an emergency rooms to treat some types of oral poisoning and drug overdoses for years because of its ability to trap toxins and chemicals, which prevents them from being absorbed into the GI tract or bloodstream” says registered dietitian Cynthia Sass.
But health enthusiasts theorise that if activated charcoal can soak up dangerous substances in ERs across the world, it should also be consumed routinely (albeit in much smaller doses), as a way to cleanse the body of other toxins we’re exposed to, like pollution and chemicals in food packaging, explains Sass. “The latest claim that they can cleanse you of ‘so-called toxins’ is why activated charcoal pills and tablets are currently everywhere,” says Delbridge, adding some people also claim them to be the ultimate hangover cure.
Do Charcoal Pills Live Up To The Hype?
“Because activated charcoal is not routinely used preventatively, there has been no real hard scientific research to support the detox claims,” Sass says. And Delbridge is skeptical that any research will ever point in its favor for at-home detoxing use.
That’s because activated charcoal is not absorbed by the body, instead it stays in the digestive track, which means it can only absorb things in your stomach and small intestine, he says. But according to a published by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, air-pollution affects the hearts and lungs, not the digestive track. Similarly, according to a published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, the chemicals that make their way from our food containers into our bodies don’t hang around in our guts either.
What’s more, the idea that your body even needs detoxing doesn’t make sense, says Delbridge. After all, the body has the whole detoxifying process down, Delbridge says. “Our kidneys and liver are your body’s natural filters. Let your kidneys and livers do their job,” he adds.
Even more importantly, it’s important to realise that, because charcoal is adsorptive, it can theoretically bind to the good stuff that does float through out guts, like nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. That means that the charcoal in the black ice cream on your newsfeed could actually keep your body from properly absorbing the calcium, potassium, and other vitamins found in dairy products, and that taking two pills with your morning OJ could prevent your body from absorbing the vitamin C in the juice. “Once or twice or even 10 times, it’s not a major deal, but if you overdo the charcoal pills over a long period of time, that could result in significant vitamin deficiencies,” Delbridge says.
Should You Go Goth?
The fire for charcoal pills and treats may be burning strong, but Sass cautions against it. There’s also no research about its long-term effectiveness, safety, or the optimal amount to take on a regular basis, she adds. (Though, most charcoal bottles recommend taking 500 to 800 milligrams per serving with a 250ml glass of water.)
So, if you do decide to try out charcoal pills, first talk to your doctor, and make sure that you don’t take it with any kind of doctor-prescribed medication (yes, birth control counts!), says Delbridge, because the charcoal can absorb the medicine before your body does, which means the medicine won’t work. (Your doc may recommend not taking your meds until at least two hours after you’ve taken your charcoal.)
“Activated charcoal can also cause nausea, vomiting, and constipation. And even trigger an intestinal blockage,” says Sass. If you start to feel off while taking activated charcoal pills, call your doctor immediately.
In the end, unless a doctor advises ingesting charcoal, you should keep it out of your system. So what should you do with all of those bottles of charcoal pills you bought online? Move them out of the kitchen and into your beauty routine. Use it to clear up your acne or whiten your teeth.
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