The Health Benefits of Activated Charcoal

Proven effective for poisoning treatment, it has potential for other uses

Activated charcoal

Verywell / Anastasiia Tretiak 

You may be familiar with activated charcoal as a popular ingredient in personal care products, such as cleansers and facial masks aimed at clearing the skin of blackheads and other impurities. You may also notice that it is used in various types of filters to remove dust particles and toxins from air and heavy metals, like lead, from water.

But activated charcoal is also taken internally for health reasons. It is used as an emergency treatment in medical settings for certain types of poisoning. Over-the-counter activated charcoal supplements are primarily used in an effort to rid the body of toxins and for other health concerns, from acute issues like gas and hangovers to chronic ones like high cholesterol and kidney disease.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal is created when organic materials, such as wood, are burned at extremely high temperatures in environments lacking oxygen. This process causes the materials to develop a large number of pores. This porous quality is what is said to make activated charcoal useful in absorbing toxins and clearing the body of unwanted substances.

Health Benefits

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 on activated charcoal is limited to animal studies and very small human trials.

Cholesterol

Studies suggest activated charcoal may help lower cholesterol levels, though it's worth noting that 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 participants 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 anything other than bran showed reductions in total and LDL cholesterol levels plus an increase in HDL ("good") levels.

The research is limited by the very small sample size, and results have not been replicated in larger studies. As such, it is too soon to recommend activated charcoal for 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 for this 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 2010 human trial 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 the study period. 

While interesting, 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 clinical trial involving 99 participants, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 1986, 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
  • 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 it 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.

Activated charcoal toothpaste

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Selection, Preparation, & Storage

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

Dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). To ensure you are purchasing a quality product, look for a trusted, third-party seal on the label, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab. This does not guarantee that a product is safe or effective, but it does provide some assurance when it comes to its ingredients.

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 skin?
Face masks containing activated charcoal are safe to use, though they can be drying and some are reportedly hard to remove. If you would like to try one, look for a formula that is customized for your skin type and following the instruction on the packaging.

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