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Activated charcoal powder on a spoon

What is activated charcoal and is it safe?

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Is activated charcoal safe to use, what are the benefits and are there side effects? Registered Nutritionist, Kerry Torrens tells us more about this trendy food supplement.

Activated charcoal is everywhere. It's added to face masks, whitening toothpastes and sold as a food supplement in tablet, capsule and powder form. Claims for its use include cleansing us of toxins, beating the bloat and even curing a hangover, but what is it and is it worthy of the hype?

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What is activated charcoal?

Although it sounds like something you’d use to fire up the barbecue, activated charcoal is the latest ‘detox’ trend. It’s typically made from carbon-containing material, like wood, that is heated at high temperatures to create charcoal, then oxidised – a process known as “activation”.

Activated charcoal has lots of small holes in its surface, increasing its surface area and making it more porous. It’s this sponge-like property that allows activated charcoal to soak up a variety of chemicals and it’s why you may see it used in filtration products, including water filters.

What is activated charcoal used for?

Activated charcoal has a long history of use in emergency medicine being used for the treatment of drug overdose or accidental poisoning. Prompt administration and at sufficient doses it binds with certain drugs or poisons, reducing their absorption in the gut and minimising the potentially damaging effects for the patient.

More recently we’ve seen an increase in ‘detox’ health products that contain activated charcoal. There’s no scientific evidence to support the claims made by these products. Moreover, the amount of charcoal added to something like a ‘detox juice’ is at best aesthetic and used to enhance its purchasing appeal rather than to bestow any specific health advantages.

What are the side effects of activated charcoal?

There are no known studies looking at the long-term use, at the levels likely to be present in over-the-counter ‘health’ and ‘detox’ products. Most experts believe that ingesting charcoal at low levels is likely to present few, if any side effects. Although, if you rely on prescription medication, taken by mouth, you should be aware that taking activated charcoal may make your medication less effective.

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Ironically, while activated charcoal does bind well to some compounds, including certain poisons and medications, it doesn't bind well with alcohol, so those hoping for a hangover cure are likely to be disappointed.

Most of the studies examining the use of activated charcoal focus on poisoning and many others are limited in quality due to the small number of study participants. Even where there are positive findings, for example for reducing flatulence, there’s conflicting evidence.

An area we don’t fully understand is how activated charcoal reacts with other nutrients. For example, it may bind with beneficial nutrients especially the water-soluble vitamins, like vitamin C, making it less available, which sadly makes 'healthy' juices combined with activated charcoal less beneficial than you might expect.

Is activated charcoal healthy?

Activated charcoal and its effects are limited to your gut so, regardless of what the marketing hype tells you, your ‘detox’ juice cannot absorb toxic materials from other areas of the body. There’s no evidence supporting the regular consumption of activated charcoal as either beneficial or helpful.

What’s more, the idea that you need support to help your body remove everyday toxins to stay healthy is a myth. In a typically healthy person, detoxification is very effectively done by the body via organs like the liver and kidneys and is not aided by detox juices, smoothies or supplements.

Is activated charcoal safe for everyone?

If you are on prescription medication that is taken by mouth, you would be well advised to avoid or at the very least, consume with caution, because activated charcoal may reduce the potency and effectiveness of your medication.

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This page was reviewed on 17 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a registered nutritionist (MBANT) with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

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