What are the benefits of activated charcoal?
Last reviewed Fri 27 July 2018
By Jennifer Huizen
Reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD
- What is activated charcoal?
- Possible uses
- Medical uses
- Risks and takeaway
Activated charcoal is a fine, odorless, black powder often used in emergency rooms to treat overdoses. Its toxin-absorbing properties have a wide range of medicinal and cosmetic uses, though none are scientifically proven.
Superheating natural sources of carbon, such as wood, produces activated charcoal. The black powder stops toxins from being absorbed in the stomach by binding to them. The body is unable to absorb charcoal, and so the toxins that bind to the charcoal leave the body in the feces.
This article will discuss some of the ways people use activated charcoal, its potential benefits, and if there are any risks.
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is available in different forms, including powder.
Activated charcoal is not the same substance as that found in charcoal bricks or burnt pieces of food.
The manufacture of activated charcoal makes it extremely adsorbent, allowing it to bind to molecules, ions, or atoms. In this way, it removes these from dissolved substances.
Making activated charcoal involves heating carbon-rich materials, such as wood, peat, coconut shells, or sawdust, to very high temperatures.
This ‘activation’ process strips the charcoal of previously absorbed molecules and frees up bonding sites again. This process also reduces the size of the pores in the charcoal and makes more holes in each molecule, therefore, increasing its overall surface area.
As a result, one teaspoon full of activated charcoal has more surface area than a football field.
Possible uses of activated charcoal
Authorities have only approved activated charcoal for the emergency treatment of overdoses or poisonings.
But due to its powerful toxin-clearing properties, some advocates have proposed activated charcoal as a treatment for an ever-growing list of conditions.
There is not sufficiently conclusive, large-scale research to establish what the benefits are of activated charcoal. Many over-the-counter (OTC) products also rely on the basic chemical principles of activated charcoal to defend their benefit claims.
A few of the uses of activated charcoal with some evidence include the following:
- Kidney health
Activated charcoal may be able to assist kidney function by filtering out undigested toxins and drugs.
Activated charcoal seems to be especially effective at removing toxins derived from urea, the main byproduct of protein digestion.
More research is needed, but some animal studies show that activated charcoal may help improve kidney function and reduce gastrointestinal damage and inflammation in those with chronic kidney disease.
A 2014 study saw rats with induced, chronic kidney disease given 4 grams (g) per kilogram per day of an oral activated charcoal preparation. The researchers found that the animals had significant reductions in intestinal inflammation and damage.
In another 2014 study, rats with induced chronic renal failure were fed mixtures containing 20 percent activated charcoal, and they also experienced improved kidney function, and a reduced rate of kidney inflammation and damage.
- Intestinal gas
Activated charcoal powder is thought to be able to disrupt intestinal gas, although researchers still do not understand how.
Liquids and gases trapped in the intestine can easily pass through the millions of tiny holes in activated charcoal, and this process may neutralize them.
In a 2012 study, a small sample of people with a history of excessive gas in their intestines took 448 milligrams (mg) of activated charcoal three times a day for 2 days before having intestinal ultrasound examinations. They also took another 672 mg on the morning of the exam.
The study showed that medical examiners were better able to see certain parts of some of the organs they intended to identify with the ultrasound whereas intestinal gas would have obscured these before the treatment.
Also, some 34 percent of the participants who were given the activated charcoal to reduce their gas had improved symptoms.
In a 2017 study, people who took 45 mg of simethicone and 140 mg of activated charcoal three times daily for 10 days, all reported a significant reduction in abdominal pain with no side effects.
The research is still limited, but a panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reports that there is enough evidence to support the use of activated charcoal to reduce excessive gas accumulation.
There is no set way to use activated charcoal for intestinal gas, but the EFSA recommend taking at least 1 g at 30 minutes before and after each meal.
- Water filtration
People have long used activated charcoal as a natural water filter. Just as it does in the intestines and stomach, activated charcoal can interact with and absorb a range of toxins, drugs, viruses, bacteria, fungus, and chemicals found in water.
In commercial settings, such as waste-management centers, operators often use activated carbon granules for one part of the filtration process. Dozens of water filtration products are also designed for at-home use, using carbon cartridges to purify water of toxins and impurities.
A 2015 study found that water filtration systems that used carbon removed as much as 100 percent of the fluoride in 32 unfiltered water samples after 6 months of installation.
Activated charcoal may treat diarrhea.
Given its use as a gastrointestinal absorbent in overdoses and poisonings, it follows that some people might propose activated charcoal as a treatment for diarrhea.
In a 2017 review of recent studies on the use of activated charcoal for diarrhea, researchers concluded that it might be able to prevent bacteria and drugs that can cause diarrhea from being absorbed into the body by trapping them on its porous, textured surface.
While noting it as a suitable treatment for diarrhea, the researchers also pointed out that activated charcoal had few side effects, especially in comparison with common antidiarrheal medications.
- Teeth whitening and oral health
Dozens of teeth-whitening products contain activated charcoal.
Many oral health products that contain activated charcoal claim to have various benefits, such as being:
- anti fungal
Activated charcoal’s toxin-absorbing properties may be important here, but there is no significant research to support its use for teeth whitening or oral health.
In a 2017 review, researchers concluded there was not enough laboratory or clinical data to determine the safety or effectiveness of activated charcoal for teeth whitening or oral health.
- Skin care
Researchers have reported that activated charcoal can help draw microparticles, such as dirt, dust, chemicals, toxins, and bacteria, to the surface of the skin, to make removing them easier.
Various activated charcoal deodorants are widely available. Charcoal may absorb smells and harmful gases, making it ideal as an underarm, shoe, and refrigerator deodorant.
Activated charcoal is also reported to be able to absorb excess moisture and control humidity levels at a micro level.
- Skin infection
Around the world, many different traditional medicine practitioners use activated charcoal powder made from coconut shells to treat soft tissue conditions, such as skin infections.
Activated charcoal may have an antibacterial effect by absorbing harmful microbes from wounds. Several are available commercially.
Medical uses of activated charcoal
Activated charcoal drinks may help to clear toxins from the body.
In the emergency room, doctors may sometimes use activated charcoal to treat overdoses or poisonings.
Activated charcoal can often help clear toxins and drugs that include:
- NSAIDsand other OTC anti-inflammatories
- calciumchannel blockers
- carbamazepine (Tegretol)
- methylxanthines (mild stimulants)
Activated charcoal cannot bind to all types of toxins or drugs, especially ones that are corrosive.
Ones that activated charcoal cannot help clear include:
- petroleum products, such as fuel oil, gasoline, paint thinner, and some cleaning products
If a person is conscious and alert, doctors may give them a drink made with a powdered form of activated charcoal mixed with water. Medical staff can also administer activated charcoal mixtures via feeding tubes in the nose or mouth if necessary.
An individual must take or be given activated charcoal within 1 to 4 hours of consuming a toxin for it to work. The charcoal cannot work if the person has already digested the toxin or drug and it is no longer in the stomach.
No one should ever try to treat an overdose or poisoning at home.
Risks and takeaway
To date, there have been no adverse reactions noted with activated charcoal in any of its various forms.
People taking medications should talk with a doctor before taking oral activated charcoal products, however, as these may interfere with absorption of their medication.