Can activated charcoal be used for reasons other than poisoning / overdose?
Formulated activated charcoal products are available for purchase over-the-counter and are associated with various potential health benefits – ranging from detoxification to dental care, skin care and even the lowering of high cholesterol. Products range from tablets and capsules to creams, gels, cleansers, soaps, face masks and even toothpaste.
The clinical uses of activated charcoal (carbon) and its long history of ‘healing powers’ have seemingly encouraged the development of ‘new and improved’ formulations, making treatment safer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even included activated charcoal in its ‘essential medicines’ list (6), which means that stock is kept on hand in most medical facilities, ambulances and pharmacies.
Consumer interest has peaked in recent years, which has encouraged more products on the shelves. This means that activated charcoal is available for non-prescription use (i.e. as a supplement for internal use or to be externally applied to the body) and for purposes other than chemical overdose or poisoning.
The use of activated charcoal for alternative purposes is a fairly obscure area – particularly when it comes to proposed internal benefits – and remains somewhat controversial (in terms of scientific research). Many will sing its praises, while others remain sceptical and cautious.
For the most, part, not a great deal is really known about what it can and can’t do for the body outside of a clinical setting. Any research that has been done into its alternative uses has not received an official stamp of approval from the FDA, which means that any products bought over-the-counter are not to be expected to treat, cure or prevent health concerns or diseases. ‘Self-diagnosis’ is also something that medical professionals would discourage if a person is thinking about using activated charcoal with the intent to treat or ‘cure’ a specific health concern.
It is advisable that anyone considering taking activated charcoal (especially if intended to be taken as a supplement) consult with a medical professional beforehand.
Medical consultation is especially advisable for individuals who are already under pharmacologic treatment for any health conditions or have any known allergies. A medical doctor will be able to best assess whether any potential adverse reactions may occur if activated charcoal is incorporated into a person’s medication / supplement routine. Activated charcoal may interact negatively with certain vitamins, micronutrients and herbal products too (i.e. interfering with their absorption).
Previous studies have shown some capability of vitamin benefit interference whereby vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and biotin (vitamin B7) can be absorbed by activated charcoal, hindering their beneficial effects. (7)
Should a medical professional see no harm in using over-the-counter orally taken products, he or she can best advise on dosages (and their frequency), as well as for how long a product may be reasonably safe to use. In general, activated charcoal is not intended for long-term use. Taking more than the specific recommended dosage is not advised.
If a dosage is missed for any reason, it is not advisable to take an extra one during a 24-hour period. If the missed dosage is remembered at a time that is close to that of the next one, it is best to keep to the original schedule. If not, a dose can be taken when remembered.
Activated charcoal in liquid form will need to be shaken (usually for about 30 seconds) before dosages are taken.
What are some of the popular alternative uses of activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal / activated carbon is now available for a variety of different uses, but is it really beneficial for health ailments other than counteracting absorption of toxic substances? Here are some well-known (and perhaps lesser known) uses, and what has and hasn’t been scientifically determined regarding these potential benefits…
1. Purification of water and airborne gasses
Did you know that much of the water we drink and bathe in is filtered through granulated carbon?
Activated charcoal (granulated / GAC or powder / PAC) is commonly used as a purifying agent for water. At home filtering systems and regional water treatment plants make use of the substance to rid water of impurities, heavy metals, solvents, pesticides and other chemicals, as well as sediment and volatile organic compounds before it filters through for use in the home. Filtering also removes odours and tastes not well tolerated in everyday drinking water. As a highly porous substance, with large surface areas for impurities to bind to make activated carbon (charcoal) a favourable medium to use. (8)
Volatile organic compounds found in gasses which are emitted from products such as varnishes, paints or those which are petroleum based can also be purified with the use of activated carbon. Used in an air purifier, unwanted compounds can be ‘trapped’ or ‘captured’ in the porous material, thereby preventing harm.
2. Commercial use
Note: Not all alternative uses of activated charcoal have been adequately studied, providing insufficient scientific proof of effectiveness when it comes to the various stated health benefits. The most well studied use relates to that of poisoning treatment within a clinical setting.
Some studies (dating back several decades) support other use benefits, while others have not clearly identified a degree of efficacy that warrants usage over any other preferable treatment or therapy. For the most part, studies have been conducted too long ago with little or no further follow-up providing current findings that prove or disprove activated charcoal’s effectiveness. In addition, the studies that have been done, used very small participant numbers, leaving many open gaps, which further research could help to clarify and provide more reliable results on.
There is an array of different activated charcoal based products available on the market for both internal (i.e. use as a supplement) and external use (applied as a gel, cream or solution), none of which require FDA approval in order to be commercially marketed. As such, many are not strictly regulated either. Marketing language may colour these products as containing a ‘wonder substance’ with properties promoting healing benefits, however, none can rightfully be used to treat clinically recognised medical conditions. Some products merely contain carbon or charcoal that is not activated, which users would be wise to determine before use.
A lack of regulation also means that some products contain artificial sweeteners to make them more palatable. Sweeteners are typically not natural substances and contain a variety of different chemically manufactured compounds. In theory, this counteracts one of the main reasons for using activated charcoal in the first place – to rid the body of harmful substances and compounds.
If using an activated charcoal-based product, especially when ingesting it as a supplement, it is advisable to gain as much knowledge as possible from a medical professional or pharmacist and ensure to use it exactly as directed. External uses are not seemingly associated with any major adverse effects (when using properly activated charcoal products), but some discomforts can arise. If any adverse reactions occur, it is best to discontinue use and consult a medical professional if necessary.
• Activated charcoal for detoxification
Detoxifying the body is one of the most popular uses of over-the-counter activated charcoal products. Taken as a supplement whether in tablet, capsule, liquid or powder form, the intention is to detoxify the body of the various chemicals and ingredients that are ingested when consuming everyday food products.
Much of the processed foodstuffs we buy and consume are known to contain manufactured ingredients which enhance flavour and improve the products’ shelf life (often extending the expiry date too). Exposure to chemicals including herbicides, plastic contaminants, pesticides and various other environmental or industrial pollutants are other potentially harmful reasons why the general public may consider using activated charcoal as a short-term body cleanse mechanism.
Taken as a supplement, activated charcoal is intended to help ‘trap toxins’ ingested before they are absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and bloodstream. In this way, harmful toxins can be eliminated from the body without causing ill effects. Along with ‘trapped’ impurities, bacteria, yeast, viruses and metabolic by-products may also bind to activated charcoal to some extent, limiting their load in the body.
The idea is to help remove harmful substances that may result in oxidative damage to the body, diminished immune system function or even cause an allergic reaction. Some stated benefits include increased energy levels and mental function, as well as reduced joint difficulties, discomfort or even pain. Detoxification is believed to aid in routinely cleansing the gastrointestinal tract over a short period (usually just a few days).
Using activated charcoal as a means of detoxification has, however, not been scientifically proven to cleanse the body by helping to decrease the toxic load in the bloodstream or digestive tract, thus improving overall state of health. For activated charcoal to function in a similar manner to how it would if it were administered in a clinical setting, actual toxins (that can bind to carbon) must be present in the body. To date, there are not sufficient studies which prove that activated charcoal can indeed randomly help remove potentially harmful substances in varying quantities when taken as a short-term daily supplement.
Products are available for anyone to purchase in grades that are suitable for every day consumption – meaning that if the product is used as directed, it should not cause any major harm. In individuals who use activated charcoal as a cleansing supplement, tablets, capsules or even powder mixes can be taken just before meals.
It is wise to keep in mind that while harmful molecules can bind to activated charcoal, so too can vitamins and water molecules. If taken as a supplement, it is best to keep in mind that nutrient deficiencies can occur. It is advisable to drink plenty of water to help prevent dehydration and problems with constipation too.
• Digestive assistance
As with detoxification, active charcoal is also sometimes used with the intention of improving digestive health issues, particularly abdominal bloating and flatulence (gas). In this instance, supplements are taken just before or after each meal during the day. The aim is to ‘trap’ harmful gasses and acids that can accumulate in the digestive system (stomach) following meals, thus causing bloating, indigestion, gas or even acid reflux.
In this way, the idea is that these supplements can also contribute to overall intestinal health, allowing both the large and small intestines to better absorb beneficial nutrients and water. Activated charcoal is thus intended as a means to prevent a build-up or accumulation of toxic molecules along the wall linings of the intestines.
Scientific studies on the subject have had seemingly divided results and have also been too small to adequately support these beneficial claims. In one study (conducted in 1981), activated charcoal was used to assess intestinal gas after participants consumed a gas producing meal. Breath hydrogen levels and flatus / gas events were measured, and it was determined that large increases in gas following a meal could be decreased with orally taken activated charcoal (when compared with a placebo group). (9)
A similar study was done several years later (in 1986) using participants from the USA and India (comparing vastly different dietary habits), to determine the amount of gas produced in the colon . This was determined by measuring breath hydrogen levels. The method also made use of an activated charcoal group for comparison with those using a placebo. The same conclusions were drawn – the use of activated charcoal reduced bloating and abdominal discomfort and cramps associated with gaseousness. (10)
In 1999, a very small-scale study was conducted, and the findings contradicted the earlier studies. The conclusions drawn in this instance were that activated charcoal did not appear to offer any beneficial effect. (11)
When used alone in the treatment or prevention of intestinal gas and bloating, study findings regarding activated charcoal have been insufficient. (12)
If used for digestive support, it is a good idea to keep in mind that, once again, water consumption during the period of use is important. The large intestines absorb water from waste as a way to assist with the healthy formation of stools (faeces). Water molecules can bind to activated charcoal, which means that water that is needed can be lost. Consuming plenty of water will help to replenish that which is lost, aiding in preventing unnecessary dehydration or constipation.
• Cholesterol management
Activated charcoal usage has also been associated with improved cholesterol management. Dietary influences can have a direct effect on cholesterol levels which are considered healthy (HDL / high-density lipoprotein), and those which are not (LDL / low-density lipoprotein). Fluctuations in cholesterol are reasonably common – the balance can easily shift from healthy HDL to unhealthy LDL-cholesterol as a result of poor eating habits. One of the main risks of LDL-cholesterol is heart disease.
Since the adsorption mechanism of carbon mostly targets the gastrointestinal tract, contact with harmful substances would technically need to be made there, before reaching the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, an accumulation of harmful substances can result in cholesterol problems.
Whether activated charcoal can really help lower cholesterol levels or not is a little bit of a grey area. Studies conducted were done several decades ago, and once again covered very small groups of participants. This means that scientifically supportive evidence is somewhat lacking in terms of reliability, regardless of the result findings.
One study looked at the effects of activated charcoal on hypercholesterolaemia (high cholesterol levels). The study (conducted in 1986) only focussed on 7 participants, treated with 3 doses over a 4-week period. Reduced LDL-cholesterol levels were observed, as well as small increases in HDL-cholesterol. (13) A few years later, another study (conducted in 1988) looked at activated charcoal and cholestyramine (a bile acid sequestrant which works to bind bile in the gastrointestinal tract, preventing reabsorption) as potential cholesterol lowering mechanisms. Researchers looked at 3 treatment regimens – dietary control, activated charcoal and cholestyramine. Again, a small group of participants, the findings were that plasma LDL-cholesterol levels could be reduced by activated charcoal and cholestyramine. (14) In 1989, a crossover study reached similar conclusions using activated charcoal, cholestyramine and bran in varying quantities. (15)
With a lack of reliable, large scale population studies assessing cholesterol management, activated charcoal should not be used as an alternative therapy in the treatment of cholesterol – it is not a sufficient therapy method and cannot replace first-line medical treatment procedures.
• Treatment of insect bites and stings
Skin irritation, itching, discomfort or pain that is associated with an insect bite or sting has also been suggested as being treatable with activated charcoal (mixed into a paste using powder and water). Use is mostly topical and linked to being able to help alleviate bite and sting associated symptoms with multiple applications.
Some treatment suggestions advise using activated charcoal mixed with half a tablespoon of coconut oil. The combination is thought to help soothe itching and can be rinsed off and reapplied every few hours (the treated area will need to be wrapped in a bandage to avoid staining from the charcoal).
Scientific research has not conclusively proven this theory, however.
• Skin care and beauty
External applications of activated charcoal are sometimes used in skincare and claim a variety of beauty benefits. Products include face masks and scrubs, soaps, body washes and even deodorant. It is thought that the surface of the skin collects dead skin cells, dust particles and sweat, as well as compounds from the fumes of vehicles. Build-up of such skin irritants can result in problems with the pores.
The intention when using activated charcoal-based skincare products is to assist with opening the pores of the skin affected by irritants, and remove the unwanted substances, allowing for healthy perspiration.
Deodorant products are aimed at ‘trapping’ unpleasant body odours. In its raw state, activated charcoal is odourless. Some products also claim to alleviate the symptoms of acne or rashes. In these instances, product labels may suggest mixing activated charcoal (usually in powder form) with aloe Vera gels.
Other beauty applications include using the powder for a ‘detoxifying bath’ which entails a 10 to 20-minute soak in a bath of warm water and activated charcoal. It is often recommended that some face masks be mixed with coconut oil to help alleviate the inflammation associated with eczema, acne and rashes.
Activated charcoal is only really scientifically linked as an adsorbent of certain toxins for poisoning treatment. Many skin irritants that clog pores are not necessarily classed in the same capacity.
Many who use these topical products encounter skin irritation (like redness and hyperpigmentation), especially if the product contains a substance other than carbon that has been sufficiently / correctly activated. For the treatment of inflammatory-like skin conditions, general skin care or even with the hopes of achieving anti-aging benefits (as some product labels may claim), are not proven by medical research either.
If a product is used and adverse reactions occur, it is advisable to consult a medical professional for appropriate care as soon as possible.
• Dental care (activated charcoal toothpaste)
Activated charcoal is also an ingredient in toothpaste products. Alternatively, it can be used on its own as a powder and mixed into a paste. The intention of charcoal as an ingredient is to serve as a ‘whitening’ agent which removes surface stains from the teeth caused by tea, coffee, cigarettes, wine and even berries. The toothpaste containing activated charcoal is also claimed to contribute to overall improved oral hygiene, helping to eliminate bad breath and prevent gum disease by correcting the pH balance in the mouth - a reasoning that is not sufficiently backed by science.
The idea is that this ingredient helps to adsorb plaque and other microscopic elements that result in teeth staining. This may produce some general improvement for certain individuals.
Using activated charcoal for teeth whitening purposes can be a messy business. A thorough rinse (or a few if spittle is not clear the first time) after brushing (just a handful of times a week) should remove any residual pigment from the mouth. The black pigment does tend to stain a variety of other surfaces it comes into contact with, so care when using these types of products is advised in order to protect counters, flooring and even clothing.
Crowns, caps and porcelain veneers may stain with use of activated charcoal toothpaste or paste mixtures. Some individuals may experience tooth sensitivity following use. It is generally advised that brushing with the product be stopped if this occurs.
Users should take care with product selection – some charcoal toothpastes have been noted as ‘abrasive’ which can contribute to the wearing down of enamel which can actually make teeth appear yellow. Enamel erosion can also result from overuse.
If in doubt, a consultation with a dentist is recommended as he / she will be able to offer advice on the products to use and how often (if at all), while taking the best care of the mouth.
• A cure for hangovers
Another claim is that activated charcoal is an effective hangover cure. As with any other alternative uses, scientific backing is insufficient here too. It is agreed by many in the medical field that alcohol, as a substance, typically absorbs fairly quickly in the gut (gastrointestinal tract). It is also known that activated charcoal does not typically adsorb alcohol well at all. This is one reason why alcohol-poisoning in a clinical setting is not commonly treated with activated charcoal.
Studies done seemingly took place during the 1980s and do not state that activated charcoal is specifically a ‘hangover cure’. A study conducted in 1981, used dogs as participants, giving each activated charcoal and alcohol simultaneously. In this study blood alcohol concentration measured lower. A follow-up study in 1986 looked at whether this reduction could have any real value within a clinical setting. In a two-phase cross-over randomised study, each participant was given a quantity of alcohol followed by either activated charcoal or water (30 minutes later). No significant blood alcohol concentration differences were noted. Thus, activated charcoal may not have all that much effect on adsorbing alcohol in humans. (16)
It may be possible that activated charcoal taken shortly after consuming large amounts of alcohol can help to adsorb some unhealthy toxins by association, but it is not a proven cure for overindulgence. There are several other contributing factors to a hangover, including an increased production of urine which results in dehydration and blood sugar level reduction that causes fatigue, both of which activated charcoal cannot remedy.
Further study could potentially shed some light on the role of congeners in alcohol products – these are effectively substances used in the production process that contribute to the enhanced flavour and aroma of non-distilled products. Since alcoholic beverages are rarely consumed in their most raw form, perhaps congeners could be adsorbed by activated charcoal and potentially reduce the effects of overindulgence. Until such studies are done, at this stage it is reasonable to presume that activated charcoal taken to prevent or treat a hangover is not entirely possible.
Should you attempt to make your own activated charcoal?
With an increasing interest in using activated charcoal, with or without sufficient scientific backing developing across the globe, some may fancy being able to produce their own version. For these individuals, the intention is to produce a product that can be used at home, sometimes as a daily supplement.
The internet is laden with blogs and videos offering instructions on how to make activated charcoal outside of pharmaceutical guidelines. Some instructions indicate heating charcoal ingredients (like coconut husks) to between 315 to 482 °C (600 to 900 °F) outside in medium to large sized drums for at least 4 to 5 hours. However, it is important to note that the furnace temperature required to create the official activated charcoal product is estimated to be around 982 °C (1 800 °F) without oxygen exposure. This temperature effectively destroys any volatile organic compounds within the raw ingredients and the lower temperatures recommended for home production may not.
As such, the end result of homemade charcoal is not likely to be an ‘activated’ product, but merely charcoal (chars or ash). The substance created may also be highly oxidised which is likely to have negative effects when used, especially if ingested in certain quantities. One concern regarding this relates to the potential for this home manufactured substances to be carcinogenic (i.e. having the potential to cause cancer.).
Aside from the heating process, not just any old ingredient is safe to make charcoal with either. Unverifiable sources can also contain harmful compounds which heating may not destroy. Homemade instructions also promote treating the burned chars with chemicals (like calcium chloride or zinc chloride) and leaving them to soak as a way to ‘sterilise’ and remove impurities and harmful compounds. Rinsing and further heating (baking) are also part of the process before grinding what remains down to a fine powder and storing it for later use.
Homemade versions should not be considered the same product as those which can be bought from reputable retailers or pharmacies. Depending on the quantity consumed, homemade variations can cause harmful reactions ranging from upset stomachs, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain and dark stools to allergic reactions. Even products purchased from reputable sellers can differ in their ingredients and quantities thereof. Without regulation, none are made in entirely the same way. For interested users, this should always be kept in mind before purchasing or using a product.
Is activated charcoal carcinogenic?
Many experts and health fanatics frown upon ingesting too many foods that have been cooked using charring methods. On this basis, charred or barbeque grilled foods are often regarded as potentially carcinogenic – meaning that they may possibly contribute to the formation of cancer in the body (this is because carcinogens interfere the with normal biological function of healthy cells). Since barbequed food is made using charcoal, an association is naturally made.
There are known carcinogenic substances called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) which can be produced in food that is overheated or ‘burnt’. Charring food can produce these substances, as well as HCAs (heterocyclic amines), especially if prepared using high temperatures. As such, increased cancer risk (for certain cancer types) is linked with these substances. (17) In the case of carbohydrate rich, plant-based foods (like potatoes which are frequently fried), acrylamide is a concerning substance linked with an increased cancer risk too.
Lower temperature cooking, such as boiling, poaching, steaming, stewing, roasting, braising, baking, casseroling and microwaving are considered safer when it comes to the generation of carcinogenic substances during the cooking process. (18)
Is the generation of carcinogenic substances a direct result of the charcoal or the cooking process? It is thought that PAHs form when fat and juices from meat drip onto flaming charcoal during the cooking process, generating smoke. The smoke contains the PAH’s, which the food is then exposed to.
HCAs are also believed to form during the cooking process, but as a result of molecular reactions between sugars, creatinine (found in muscle) and amino acids (found in proteins). Heat is a key component of carcinogenic production, as is the mechanism of cooking. (19) Charred, burnt or barbequed meals may be best consumed in moderation or not at all.
The use of activated charcoal and the risk of developing cancer may, by associations, be linked to smoking, charring or barbequing cooking methods based on the carcinogenic properties produced during these methods of preparation. However, this theory does not appear to have undergone any significant medical research. Establishing direct links between activated charcoal and whether or not the substance contains carcinogenic substances (which may be produced during the heating process to make the product) is still something research is yet to definitively determine.
Homemade variations of activated charcoal (or charcoal which most variants will be due to the inability to expose raw materials to the degree of heat required) are more likely to contain carcinogenic compounds which could increase risk if used / ingested. This too requires further research for definitive information to be obtained.
Interestingly, what has been tapped into is the possibility that charcoal may have a role in treating certain types of cancer. One study looked at the possible effect of using activated charcoal and epirubicin (an anthracycline medication commonly used in chemotherapy treatment) as a suspension treatment in breast cancer participants. Findings showed that the suspension could be effective in clearing axillary metastasis (i.e. breast cancer that has spread to the axillary lymph nodes). (20)
Have the long-term effects of using activated charcoal been established?
It does not appear to be very well understood what types of long-term effects activated charcoal has on the body with regular usage (i.e. as a supplement). Long-term effects do not appear to have been established with short-term usage in a clinical setting either. This can largely be attributed to the fact that activated charcoal has never really been intended for regular, long-term usage, and it is expected to be worked out of the body’s system via faeces. There do not appear to be any formal studies documenting its long-term risks at this stage, perhaps because so few major complications or side-effects occur.
What about activated charcoal for pets?
Supplemental usage is not just reasonably popular among human beings, it is also available for usage in pets. As with gaseous events in humans, pets who have a carnivorous diet may also experience bloating and associated digestive discomforts, like flatulence.
Studies have looked at whether the inclusion of activated charcoal into a pet’s diet could have any effect on reducing the frequency of flatulence and the associated odour. One such study used activated charcoal, Yucca schidigera (a herbaceous plant also known as Mojave yucca or Spanish dagger), and zinc acetate (a salt that forms as a result of a reaction between zinc oxide and acetic acid) using in vitro screening and randomised control trial methods. A device was attached to the participating dogs as a means to help measure hydrogen sulphide concentrations. Findings from 8 adult dogs showed that hydrogen sulphide (in the large intestine) could be significantly reduced with the use of activated charcoal – leading to a reduced percentage of flatulence events with foul odour, or with only a slightly noticeable odour. Percentage reductions were significant when all three of the ingredients tested were given to the animals at the same time. (21)
Activated charcoal is also an option for veterinarians to use should poisoning or an overdose of a toxic substance due to ingestion be determined in pets. A vet may determine the dosage by calculating about 1 to 4 grams per kilogram of the animal’s body weight. (22) Repeated doses can be given to symptomatic pets every few hours (for up to 72 hours) until signs of improvement are determined.
Signs of poisoning may be similar to that of a human being, and include nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Restlessness, dehydration, hyperactivity and a host of other more serious symptoms can also develop, including hypertension, heart attack, seizures and tremors.
Adsorptive studies have also been done to assess the capability of using activated charcoal when given with dog food. In one study, no animals were used but instead, substances were tested in the lab (using in vitro methods), and fixed quantities of paracetamol (acetaminophen), dog food and activated charcoal were mixed for assessment. The findings noted that the addition of dog food reduced the adsorptive capacity of activated charcoal for paracetamol. (23)
If considering the use of activated charcoal for a pet, it is best to discuss the nature of the intended use with a qualified veterinarian beforehand. Although it is widely available as a product over-the-counter, the use of activated charcoal may not be in the best interests of an animal’s overall wellbeing – much like that of human beings – when used for purposes other than counteracting the harmful toxins associated with poisoning.
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