A couple of years ago Bridget and I attended the opening party for a functional medicine practice in New York City. It was hosted in a hip, little venue in Brooklyn and they were serving pitch-black, activated charcoal cocktails. It was the first time I’d seen the trend in real life. I kept casually checking the mirror to see if my teeth were black. They were not.
Ever since, I’ve been seeing black “superfoods” popping up just about everywhere from juice cleanses to pizza crusts to ice cream cones. All UP in my Insta feed on the ‘reg.
So what’s the deal? Is this white hot health trend just that, a trend? Or do the health claims touted by the lycra-clad, fitfluencers have any charcoal-whitened teeth to them?
What’s the deal with activated charcoal?
First of all, what the hell is it?
Unlike the charcoal you find at your local, rooftop bbq, activated charcoal is made from bamboo, wood, or sometimes coconut shells. It’s burned into a char first, and then ‘activated’ by incinerating the hell out of it in a furnace, at temps upward of 1,800 degrees, with steam.
So no, we’re not talking about rubbing charcoal from your dad’s grill on your face. That would be very unhealthy.
Second of all, so what do they say it does?
Oh man, everything from lowering cholesterol, to curing a hangover, to helping your unicorn digest its organic quinoa. But we’re not sure if any of that’s true just yet.
One thing we know it does do is help stop some types of acute poisoning. That’s according to WebMd, everyone’s favorite, anxiety-inducing website, so you know it’s true. It’s also listed as an essential medicine by the World Health Organization for this reason, so there’s that. It’s basically an alternative to pumping ones’ stomach.
Ya. It works like that because of a process called adsorption. Unlike absorption, adsorption is the process through which molecules of gas, liquid or dissolved solids adhere to a surface. The ‘activation’ of activated charcoal increases said surface area drastically and creates a porous surface that’s perfect for poisons to adhere to, blocking their absorption into the body. Still with me? The same process is what makes it an effective water filter.
But this whole adsorption thing is also what’s getting so twisted up out there on these streets. They say because ‘toxins’ adhere to it, it must be a super-bitching ‘detox’ tool. But, ummm, that’s not exactly the case.
(Side note: Why are we so obsessed with ‘detoxing’ for f’s sake?)
So are these other detox/retox/health claims true?
Well, sorry to say, probs not. Aside from the two proven uses above (poisoning cessation and water filtration) there are a lot of people making a lot of claims about how useful and wonderful this stuff is.
You may have heard…..
That it helps lower cholesterol.
Welp, there have only been a few, small studies done on this and they’ve basically done nothing but contradicted each other. Sooo yeah, no evidence thus far to support that. Now, this doesn’t necessarily prove that it doesn’t lower cholesterol, but buyer beware. Nobody should be saying it absolutely does just yet.
That it decreases gas and other digestive discomfort.
Unfortunately, this one is exactly the same as above. Just no solid research proving this to be true.
That it prevents or cures hangovers.
So here’s a fun fact. Apparently activated charcoal has been proven not to bind well to ethanol or alcohol because of the chemical structure. So it very likely does nothing at all to help a prevent or cure a hangover sooooooo what the hell, you guys?
That it whitens teeth.
Bummer on this one too. The American Dental Association has actually posted a warning against it for this use. They say it’s too abrasive and actually breaks down the enamel of your teeth, leaving you vulnerable to other dental issues. So if it is whitening your teeth, it’s not extracting the stains by magically lifting them, it’s just sanding away your enamel. Which is bad.
That it cures acne.
With this one as well, there is very little research to back up this claim. On the bright side though, it probably does bind to dirt and oil like any other soap or cleanser so, at least this one isn’t harmful.
Well, crap. Is this stuff even safe?!
So here’s the annoying/interesting thing… remember that whole adsorption thing?
Turns out, activated charcoal can’t tell the difference between good stuff and bad stuff when it comes to adhesion. So if the ‘stuff’ is something that’s going to adhere to it, it will.
This means, instead of ‘detoxing’ you might just be blocking the absorption of nutrients you actually want to consume, like the calcium in that black ice cream.
Or, it may be binding to the prescription drug you very much need, like an antidepressant or blood thinner.
What’s even scarier for the demographic that is probably consuming it most (young, urban woman whacking back black cocktails) it might be preventing your birth control from doing its job by blocking your body’s absorption of it. Um yeah, we think that should come with a warning label, no?
In all of these instances activated charcoal might be causing a problem instead of solving one. Though, it’s worth noting that most experts agree that the occasional consumption in food and drinks (assuming you’re not on any life-saving prescriptions) is probably safe.
Ya. It seems to me that the activated charcoal trend of the past year or so is just that, a trend.
Most of the “benefits” just don’t hold up upon further inspection. That’s not to say that every health claim that has yet to be proven scientifically is false. It’s just to say that most of the claims regarding activated charcoal seem to be pretty dramatic stretches at this point.
The bottom line is that activated charcoal photographs well. And it’s probably safe to consume once in awhile. But after that, it’s probably best to save your money. Those expensive supplements, powders, juice cleanses and beauty products making the magical claims about its ability to solve all of your problems, are most likely full of it.
Activated charcoal is not the detoxifying, anti-aging, miracle cure to everything. Really, nothing out there is.
Well, nothing aside from eating healthy and taking care of yourself. Speaking of, interested in a quick reset? Check out our free, 3-day trial of The Simple Cleanse. It’ll make you feel real good.