The Health Benefits of Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal mixed with water in a cup

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Activated charcoal is used as an emergency treatment for certain types of poisoning, and available as a supplement primarily used for detoxing and other health concerns, including cholesterol, kidney disease, gas, and hangovers.

To create activated charcoal, organic materials such as wood are burned at extremely high temperatures in environments lacking in oxygen. This process causes the materials to develop a large number of pores. Because of its porous quality, activated charcoal is said to help absorb toxins and clear the body of unwanted substances.

Activated charcoal is also used in air filter masks to remove dust particles and toxins in the air and in water filters to remove heavy metals, such as lead. It is also sometimes added to beauty products and facial masks to clear the skin of blackheads and other impurities.

Health Benefits

Despite its popularity as a natural remedy, activated charcoal has not been determined to be an effective treatment for anything other than poisoning and drug overdose, typically administered in an emergency room. For other health conditions, the research is limited to animal studies and very small human trials. Investigators have studied activated charcoal for the following:

Cholesterol

Studies suggest activated charcoal may help to lower cholesterol levels, however, the most promising research, was done decades ago.

In a small study published in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 1989, seven people with high cholesterol were treated with activated charcoal for three weeks. During that time, the study members experienced a 29% decrease in total cholesterol and a 41% decrease LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels.

In the second phase of the study, 10 additional patients with severely elevated cholesterol levels were treated with either activated charcoal, the cholesterol medicine cholestyramine, a combination of both treatments, or bran for three weeks. At the end of the study, those given charcoal, cholestyramine, or combination therapy showed reductions in total and LDL cholesterol levels plus an increase in HDL ("good") levels.

The research, however, was performed on a very small group and has not been replicated in larger studies. It is too soon to recommend activated charcoal in the treatment of high cholesterol.

Kidney Disease

Activated charcoal may help people with renal diseases preserve kidney function by binding and trapping toxins that would otherwise be filtered in the kidneys. The supporting research is limited, however.

A 2014 study on rats found activated charcoal improved creatinine clearance and reduced blood levels of urinary toxins like urea and indoxyl sulfate.

A human trial from 2010 on elderly patients with end-stage renal disease also found activated charcoal along with a low-protein diet significant decreased blood urea and creatinine levels. In addition, none of the patients treated with activated charcoal required emergency dialysis during this time. 

More research is needed before activated charcoal can be recommended for the treatment of kidney disease.

Gas

Activated charcoal is recommended in alternative medicine to treat flatulence, but the research on this is very limited.

A small study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 1986 suggests that activated charcoal may help alleviate intestinal gas. In the study, a clinical trial involving 99 participants demonstrated that treatment with activated charcoal helped reduce symptoms of bloating and abdominal cramps associated with intestinal gas.

More research is needed before activated charcoal can be recommended for the treatment of intestinal gas.

Possible Side Effects

Side effects of activated charcoal include black stools, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. In order to avoid constipation, drink plenty of water when taking activated charcoal.

People who have an intestinal obstruction should not use activated charcoal. In addition, people with gastrointestinal motility issues should not use activated charcoal, unless under doctor's supervision.

Activated charcoal may interfere with the absorption and efficacy of prescription medications. If you are taking prescription medicine, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before using activated charcoal.

Selection, Preparation & Storage

Dietary supplements containing activated charcoal are sold in many natural-foods stores and other stores specializing in natural products. You can also purchase activated charcoal online.

Activated charcoal is primarily sold in capsules, but can also be found in soaps, facial masks, and even toothpaste.

Dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. To ensure you are purchasing a quality product look for a trusted independent, third-party seal on the label, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.

Common Questions

Is it safe to use activated charcoal toothpaste every day?

Toothpaste with activated charcoal has recently become popular due to its purported ability to whiten teeth and kill germs that cause bad breath. However, activated charcoal is an abrasive that may harm tooth enamel when used daily and lead to increased sensitivity. In addition, most toothpaste brands with activated charcoal do not contain fluoride, which is important for strengthening tooth enamel.

Are activated charcoal face masks safe for your skin?

Face masks containing activated charcoal are safe to use, however, they can be drying and some are reportedly hard to remove. However, there are a variety of masks on the market to choose from. When selecting a charcoal face mask, look for a formula that is customized for your skin type and following the instruction on the packaging.

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