Let’s Talk Trends: Activated Charcoal

Black ice cream. Murky lemonade. Toothpaste mixed with a dark powder. They’re all part of the trend that makes use of an unlikely ingredient – activated charcoal.

Advocates of this fine, black powder maintain that it can improve heart function, lower cholesterol, fix digestive problems, whiten teeth and even stave off a hangover.

But can activated charcoal live up to any of these health claims? 

charcoal powder and paste

There’s no question the substance can be used medicinally. In fact, hospital ERs administer it routinely to treat cases of drug overdose and poisoning. That’s because activated charcoal is a highly absorbent powder that binds with drugs and toxins when ingested. The toxins are then prevented from being absorbed into the body and causing damage.

Other activated charcoal health claims, however, are harder to prove.

Teeth whitening. Activated charcoal’s abrasiveness might remove some surface stains, but it could also remove enamel, leaving you with yellow or unsightly teeth, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).

For whiter teeth, the Cleveland Clinic suggests cutting back on coffee, tea, red wine or other drinks that can stain teeth instead. Experts recommend sticking with ADA-approved toothpastes while scientific research sorts out activated charcoal’s long-term effects.

Gas and bloating. Claims that activated charcoal in pastries, drinks, breads and ice cream offers gastric relief aren’t supported by substantive research or large studies. Taking charcoal pills long-term may even cause additional intestinal issues like diarrhea or constipation, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Try sipping peppermint or chamomile tea to help reduce gas and bloating, Brigham and Women’s Hospital says. Cut out carbonated drinks and eat fewer fatty foods. Don’t overdo high-fiber foods such as pasta, beans and broccoli.

Detox. Sure, activated charcoal binds with certain toxins and metals in ER treatment for poisoning, but taking it to detox is something you may want to reconsider. That’s because activated charcoal’s indiscriminate binding can also remove necessary nutrients or reduce the efficacy of vitamins and prescription medications.

Your liver and kidneys perform natural detox duties. Drink plenty of water, eat fruits and vegetables and minimize refined sugar and junk foods to help your body get back on track.

Hangover prevention. No studies support the belief that activated charcoal pills can stop a hangover, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Its website advises limiting the number of drinks you consume, alternating alcoholic drinks with glasses of water and eating while you drink to help slow absorption of alcohol.

As with any untested product, do your research on the health claims around activated charcoal – regardless of how many people are singing its praises. If you have questions, talk with your health care provider.