What is...?

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal seems to be in everything at the moment – burger buns, beauty products, toothpaste, water filters, and even…ice cream? Really? People want to eat charcoal ice-cream? Mmm-kay…

So what is activated charcoal? It is a fine black powder created by burning carbon-rich materials – like wood, coconut shells, coal, peat, sawdust – at very, very high temperatures (we’re not talking backyard barbecues here).

The charcoal is ‘activated’ by a process (which I’m sure you don’t want me to go into detail about) which makes it super adsorbent (different to absorbent; adsorbent = binding to the surface, rather than soaking into it), yet not absorbed by the body.

This is why it’s used to treat cases of overdose and poisoning – it adsorbs all of the nasty toxins and then carries them out of the body in vomit or poo.

It is for this reason that we now see activated charcoal turning everything we put in or on our bodies black – it has amazing detoxifying powers.

Or does it?

Activated charcoal has been known to:

  • help improve kidney function
  • reduce intestinal gas
  • purify water
  • treat diarrhoea
  • act as a natural deodorant
  • improve hangover symptoms
  • deep-clean the skin
  • whiten teeth
  • lower cholesterol levels
  • cleanse the digestive system
  • treat skin infections

Although that all seems pretty great…

And while there doesn’t seem to be debate over the safety of activated charcoal for water filtration, or topical (applied to the skin) uses, there is concern over whether regularly ingesting it as a supplement or food/drink product, may do more harm than good.

Some concerns include:

  • decreased absorption of vitamins and/or medication
  • vomiting and nausea
  • constipation
  • abdominal pain
  • bowel obstructions
  • dehydration and electrolyte imbalances

The odd black burger bun or cup of black ice cream (if you’re so inclined) probably isn’t going to do you much harm, although don’t be shocked if your poop is black the next day!

However, I’d certainly recommend doing your research if you are thinking of taking activated charcoal supplements, or including it in your diet on a regular basis.

If you do either, make sure that you drink a lot of water, and pay attention to your body and listen if it tells you that activated charcoal is not right for you.