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Activated Charcoal Drinks and Supplements
Uses, benefits and warnings.

Should you be eating charcoal?
Should you be eating charcoal?

When someone mentions charcoal, my first thoughts are of back yard barbecues with family growing up. Charcoal came in the form of little briquettes that we put in a grill and cooked over.

Today, there's an entire industry that's grown up selling activated charcoal, mixed into dozens of products. Companies claim charcoal can perform miracles like absorb toxins, cure acne and whiten your teeth. Should I have been eating those briquettes instead of cooking with them?

The first thing you need to know is that there's a difference between regular and “activated” charcoal. Common charcoal is made from things like coal, coconut shells, peat, petroleum or wood. To make it “activated” manufacturers heat the common charcoal in the presence of a gas. That creates pores or openings inside the charcoal that chemicals can get trapped in.

Doctors have been using activated charcoal for years in emergency rooms. It traps and absorbs poison, preventing it from moving further into the body. It is also sometimes used to treat acute alcohol poisoning and in bandages to help heal wounds.

Those legitimate medical uses for activated charcoal made it an easy sell for unproven, worthless or dangerous uses. First up were companies selling it combined with supplements or mixed into drinks. A popular early one was “SUGAR FREE DETOX CHARCOAL LEMONADE.”

Lie number one is calling it sugar free. The most popular recipe calls for “4 tablespoons agave nectar, honey or maple syrup...” Those have 64 grams of sugar in them, more sugar than most people should take in for the entire day.

Lie number two is using the word “detox.” The human body naturally cleanses itself continuously. Your liver, kidneys, lungs and skin flush waste products out through urine, feces and sweat. Anything claiming to “detox” you or flush out “toxins” faster, is preying on your wishful thinking. There is no magic "flush" handle on your body that can be activated to rid it of toxins like there is on your toilet.

Then there are the rest of the baseless claims. The author of the charcoal lemonade recipe claims it, “can reduce cholesterol and can be great for treating acne and body oder.” (Yes the typo for the word ODOR was in the original.)

No, no and no. There has never been a clinical trial that shows activated charcoal, in any form can reduce cholesterol, treat acne or reduce body odor. It also fails to remove mold from the body, freshen breath or prevent gas and bloating. Those are all just marketing lies with no clinical evidence to back them up. The same false claims are being made for activated charcoal supplements and pills.

Here's a little secret about those emergency room uses. If a doctor gives activated charcoal for a drug overdose, an adult typically gets about 25,000 to 50,000 milligrams. Those supplements you buy? Most are in the range of 250 milligrams, between 100 to 200 times LESS than what's prescribed by a doctor. With such a small dose, there's simply not enough to “detoxify” anything.

There are more limitations. When emergency responders use activated charcoal, there's a very specific time period it must be used in. Outside of an hour or two, it's simply not that effective. Plus, when it's administered, doctors report as many as 20% of their patients throw up, definitely not a “healthy” result.

It gets worse. Because charcoal can absorb things in the stomach, it's been shown to absorb beneficial vitamins and minerals before your body has a chance to use them. If you're on a prescription medication, it can lower the effectiveness by reducing how much medication your body absorbs.

To sell more bogus products, activated charcoal moved from the supplement aisle into toothpaste. Promoters claim it can absorb all the bad things in your mouth and make your teeth whiter. Dentists found it can wear down the surface enamel and leave your teeth more vulnerable to staining. It's also not in your mouth long enough, or in sufficient quantities to really absorb anything that causes bad breath.

People with fillings may have an especially bad time, because the charcoal can get into them and be difficult to get out. Trapped pieces of charcoal can get in the gums and cause irritation.

On top of all those problems, there's the purity question. As we've pointed out over the years, supplements are not regulated by the United States government. Nobody checks to make sure they have the ingredients inside that they claim. When companies have independently tested supplements, up to one-third have none of the ingredients listed on the label. You have no guarantee that the activated charcoal supplement you buy is even what it claims.

The bottom line is this. If you see a product with activated charcoal on the label, leave it on the shelf. At best it won't work and you'll just be wasting your money. The worst case is that it can damage your teeth, irritate your gums, leach vitamins from your body, reduce the effectiveness of prescription medications and cause you to throw up.

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