I was 15 years old when I found myself in an emergency room, facing down a cup of activated charcoal. I had never heard of consuming charcoal before. It was a cooking tool, not something to be eaten. Nevertheless, the frustrated nurse wanted me to drink it.
I was in the midst of an overdose, which is when activated charcoal is typically consumed in a medical setting. Given my experience, it’s utterly baffling to me that the disgusting sludge is now a wellness phenomenon, with water-detoxifying charcoal branches, charcoal powder dietary supplements, teeth-whitening charcoal toothpastes, and blackhead-eliminating charcoal skincare products cluttering the space. These trending products, while not deadly, are mostly useless, at best, but that hasn’t stopped consumer interest from skyrocketing in recent years.
Activated charcoal is regular charcoal that’s been exposed to extremely high temperatures in order to expand its surface area, making it more adsorbent (molecules to adhere to its surface area, like a magnet). The first known record of charcoal’s use as a teeth-cleaning agent was in Ancient Greece, from a written demonstration by Hippocrates. It was found to have “detoxing” properties in 1831, when a French pharmacist, P.F. Touery, swallowed 10 lethal doses of the poison strychnine before treating himself with activated charcoal in front of an audience at the French Academy of Medicine. But it wasn’t until 1963 that activated charcoal became emergency rooms’ first line of defense to relieve toxic stress on poisoned patients though gastric irrigation (more commonly known as “getting your stomach pumped”).
Popular interest in activated charcoal took off in 2014, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s media property Goop recommended readers on juice cleanses to pick up charcoal lemonade from the now-defunct, Los Angeles-based juice shop JUICE Served Here. Even Goop, at that time, wasn’t fully onboard: “the Charcoal Lemonade is delicious, despite the suspiciousness of drinking montmorillonite clay and activated charcoal.” But the site would go on to publish nearly a dozen stories featuring activated charcoal over the next couple years, including a recipe for activated charcoal chai, in which the activated charcoal “acts as a super-absorbent sponge… [but] it can also bind to nutrients and meds, making them hard to absorb.”
In 2016, Kim Kardashian praised activated charcoal in a post on her subscribers-only website titled “The Foods I Always Have In My Fridge!” “Pressed Juicery’s fresh drinks taste amazing and make the perfect snack!” she wrote. “I’m currently into the Charcoal Lemonade, which is rich in vitamin C. I swear, when I drink it, I feel cleansed and energized throughout the day.”
After Kim’s post featuring the lemonade, Google searches for activated charcoal surged, and have remained high ever since. “Activated charcoal’s list of accomplishments reads as follows: It whitens teeth, cleans your hair, promotes a healthy digestive tract, detoxes your face, and more,” wrote the beauty website Byrdie. In 2016, supermodel Chrissy Teigen tweeted that she’d been informed that activated charcoal would “clean her hot dog body from the inside.” And on wellness website Mind Body Green, a “microbiome expert and gut health evangelist” wrote that “using activated charcoal as an internal detoxifying agent can certainly get rid of some of the toxins that can contribute to acne and other skin issues” as well as “clean and lift stains from teeth, revealing a whiter, brighter, healthier smile.”
But does activated charcoal actually cleanse and energize the growing number of people who consume it? “No,” Dr. Andrew Stolbach, toxicologist and emergency physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told The Outline. “People make claims that activated charcoal absorbs all sorts of ‘toxins,’ but there is no well-conducted study that shows benefit from adding charcoal supplements to a normal diet.”
“There’s no evidence supporting the regular consumption of activated charcoal as either beneficial or helpful,” wrote nutritionist Kerry Torrens for the BBC. “What’s more, the idea that you need additional support to help your body remove everyday toxins to stay healthy is a myth.
Following the burgeoning popularity of active charcoal in food products, in June of this year the New York City Department of Health began enforcing a 2016 ban on its use as a food and color additive, citing the Food and Drug Administration’s lack of regulatory approval for the ingredient.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t appear to be particularly harmful when ingested orally in the small quantities found in lemonades and ice cream. “From a medical standpoint, it isn’t dangerous to have small amounts of activated charcoal,” Dr. Stolbach said. “Activated charcoal may prevent absorption of some micronutrients, but in small doses this isn’t a concern. Most Americans get far more vitamins than they need, anyway.”
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for all those charcoal toothpastes that have appeared on the teeth whitening scene in recent years.
Hello Toothpaste claims, in its Target.com and Amazon.com product description, that “activated charcoal also works as a natural detoxifier to polish and clean.” Soap company Lush, known for its aggressively fragranced retail stores, sells Boom! Toothy Tabs, which are essentially pills that you crush with your teeth, then brush with the chewed-up sediment. “These dark little tabs are packed with detoxifying ingredients like powdered charcoal and gunpowder tea to keep your kisser in tip top condition,” states the product description. And Australian brand Carbon Coco claims that the activated charcoal in its toothpaste “removes toxins, stains, and plaque from your teeth … the super finely milled polish won’t damage your enamel.”
Actually using activated charcoal on your teeth, though, could potentially end up damaging your enamel — and, because you’re scouring the protective layer of your teeth right off, the teeth become more susceptible to staining.
“In no way do we recommend using charcoal toothpaste for whitening,” John Brooks, DDS, a professor of dentistry at The University of Maryland who in 2017 conducted a review of the use of charcoal in dentistry, told The Outline. “There’s a lot of hyperbole in the product descriptions, and I just found it ludicrous. That’s what spawned the idea of the paper.” Brooks is skeptical not just to its efficacy, but its safety as well.
“I'm concerned the public could be using a product that could be unsafe or at minimum, they wasted their money on,” continued Dr. Brooks. “More evidence is needed.”
Furthermore, the abrasiveness of charcoal in toothpaste hasn’t been thoroughly tested as safe. “Inclusion in products raises concerns about damage to these oral structures, as well as increasing caries [tooth decay] susceptibility due to the potential loss of enamel,” states Brooks’ scientific review.
Lush defended its Toothy Tabs in a statement to The Outline: “Our Toothy Tabs were created with guidance from dentists … The activated charcoal in Boom is a very fine powder and this charcoal, along with all other Toothy Tab ingredients, pass the Relative Dentin Abrasivity standards.”
The Relative Dentin Abrasivity (RDA) test measures the abrasivity of a toothpaste, with 250 being the uppermost score available to a product before it’s deemed unsafe. However, the RDA rating only concerns how hard the oral product will be on the tooth enamel; it doesn’t address antibacterial, antifungal, or other therapeutic properties necessary to the success of a toothpaste. An RDA score “should not be used to rank the safety of dentifrices with RDA values below 250,” states the American Dental Association; essentially, there’s a lot more to the safety and effectiveness of a toothpaste than how abrasive it is.
Hello Toothpaste and Carbon Coco didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Activated charcoal in skincare is another losing proposition. Typically recommended for acne sufferers, brands claim that products containing activated charcoal can “purify, decongest, and hydrate” as well as “refine pores.” But according to Dr. Yunyoung Claire Chang, dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, the known benefits of activated charcoal skincare are limited.
“There is no scientific evidence that it actually works to purify the skin,” she told The Outline in an email. “Some activated charcoal cleansers/soaps have a grainy consistency to help with exfoliation, but may be too harsh or irritating to the skin. I prefer ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, which have been scientifically proven to treat acne.”
Cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong has a slightly more forgiving approach to the ingredient. “There isn’t any good data on whether or not it works, but theoretically, it could work” at deep-cleaning pores, she wrote on her blog, Lab Muffin. “However, I’m not sure the typically short amounts of time that these products stay on your skin is enough — in studies on activated charcoal, it typically takes a few hours for it to take its full effect.”
It makes some sense that people would assume activated charcoal, so common in emergency rooms to save patients dying from poisoning or overdose, would also be beneficial as an occasional “detox” cure, teeth-whitening tool, or magnetic blackhead blaster. But unfortunately it isn’t that simple, and brands rely on shaky science and assumptions.
If you’re not in the hospital from an overdose or poisoning, you probably don’t need to be consuming activated charcoal in any form. The science just isn’t there. But if you want to waste your money on one of the most disgusting things I’ve personally ever tasted, the only people stopping you are the NYC Department of Health. Good luck out there.