What is it?
Most commonly when it comes to food grade varieties, it’s either bamboo or coconut fibre in origin. Charcoal is created by heating wood to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. This forms carbon. Charcoal is often interchanged with the name of carbon, as its the same thing. The charcoal is ‘activated’ by treating it with oxygen so that it develops a larger surface area, increasing its ability to trap toxins and other compounds via ‘binding sites’ on its surface.
How does it work?
It removes compounds from water, the digestive system, skin etc by adsorption. Adsorbtion, not absorption, works by electrical attraction, pulling molecules, atoms and ions towards its surface and sticking to it, not becoming one with it. Due to the fact it works on surface area, once all its binding sites have been filled with various chemicals or impurities, it stops working, as it has no more room to bind anything else. This is when, if you’re using a carbon/charcoal filter for your water, you would need to replace it.
Activated charcoal is good at trapping other carbon-based impurities (“organic” chemicals), as well as things like chlorine. But many other chemicals aren’t attracted to carbon at all – things like sodium and nitrates will just pass right on by.
Why is it a health trend?
Activated charcoal is sometimes used by medical professionals to help reduce the absorption and increase elimination of various drugs when overdose or acute intoxication has occurred. They use calculated doses at an appropriate time and monitor their patients closely. As this is done by experienced nurses and under the care of medical professionals in a controlled setting – this should not be done at home. If you ever find yourself in a situation where someone has overdosed or been poisoned, you must call 000 or get medical help immediately. Not all poisons or toxins can be reduced or cleared by activated charcoal.
However, it does adsorb a wide range of substances and organisms including bacteria, viruses, enzymes, venoms, endogenous compounds and xenobiotics which is why it is slowly creeping into natural body products such as soap and face masks, and popularity of charcoal is gaining momentum in food products such as juices and (in Asia) baked goods.
Activated charcoal is best taken within 1 hour of ingestion of the toxin, and with food in the stomach. The food gives the charcoal more time to work, potentially by slowing down the rate at which the toxins leave the stomach and enter the small intestines.
Activated charcoal taken by mouth may reduce the amount of gas produced. This may be beneficial for those with IBS, food intolerance or those just prone to bloating and excess gas. Though I don’t recommend you take it everyday. Having some activated charcoal tablets or charcoal containing food/drink directly after ingesting something that may cause you gut problems may be of benefit. But my first suggestion would always be to avoid the foods you know are problematic in the first place.
The charcoal is not absorbed by the body, but passes through the GI system, so chemicals and toxins adhere to it, pass through the body, and are expelled by the digestive system.
Who shouldn’t have it internally?
- Those with iron anaemia – some studies have shown activated charcoal to adsorb iron from the gastrointestinal tract, making it harder for you to get the amounts you need, and may counteract any iron supplements you may be taking.
- Anyone taking medications – you should check with your doctor before consuming activated charcoal as it may interfere with your medication.
- Those with chronic constipation, or IBS-related constipation.
- Those with Coeliac disease – you can have it, but don’t eat gluten containing foods and take charcoal thinking that it will stop you from being ‘glutened’. This is false – despite what other websites may tell you. Gluten is not a ‘toxin’, it’s a protein, and charcoal won’t prevent you from being affected.
- Those with a nutrient-poor diet, or diagnosed nutrient deficiencies. The charcoal binds to toxins, but it also binds to some vitamins and minerals reducing your absorption of them slightly. If you’re going to take the charcoal, have it away from main meals so you don’t impact the digestion and absorption of the nutrients.
How can I use it?
Activated charcoal is popping up everywhere. So I contacted some of the companies leading the way with charcoal containing goodies and gave them all a try!
- You can drink it – Pressed Juices have a Black Lemonade that contains alkaline water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and activated coconut charcoal. Drink to give your digestive system a gentle push along and clean up. It looks a bit scary, but tastes just like lemon water! Pressed Juices – Black Lemonade
- You can put it on your face – Blackout Mask have launched their aloe vera, coconut oil and charcoal face mask, and it’s beautiful! Well, not when it’s on your face, but the results are awesome. My face felt so soft and hydrated, and reduced the redness, naturally calming my skin. Blackout Mask
- You can clean your teeth with it – Warpaint, the toothpaste that works on the idea that when you scrub with charcoal, the surface area of it picks up impurities, helping to give your mouth an even better clean, and a pearly white smile all at the same time! It gets messy, but it’s fun. Warpaint
- You can drink filtered water with it – This super cute eau good bottle contains a piece of charcoal that acts as a natural water filter, reducing chlorine, balancing the pH and mineralising the water. The lid isn’t super airtight, so don’t go flinging it around like a crazy woman. But it’s such a nice bottle, it’s definitely worthy of your desk top. Plus it comes with instructions for how to recharge it at 3 months, and dispose of the filter after 6 months – boost your garden with its natural fertilising capabilities, freshen your joggers by deodorising them, and even use it as an air freshener for the kitty litter! Biome – Water bottle with filter
- You can scrub yourself with it – This 100% natural konjac sponge has activated charcoal added to help tame and combat dry and problematic skin. Its rough when dry, so you always need to add water to soften it before you start, but it helps by deep cleansing, exfoliating and stimulating blood circulation. The added charcoal helps to fight bacteria and excess oil as well as bind to other dirt and impurities giving you a lovely fresh clean. You can use it by itself as it’s naturally pH balanced, or with a little of your favourite cleanser. I wear make up daily and found it did little to remove it. So I’d use a pre-cleanser or make up remover before using it to get the maximum benefit. The soft spongey face massage it gives you is heavenly though! Biome – Body Sponge
- You can soap up with it – This Beauty and the Bees handmade soap is chemical-free and rich in herbs and plant and nut oils. Its got quite a strong liquorice fragrance but its benefits are quite impressive! Liquorice root extract is added a natural antimicrobial herb for it’s anti-inflammatory and demulcent (forms a soothing protective film) properties, which may help some skin conditions like eczema and acne. It is a mild exfoliant too so it’s great for oily, spotty skin but equally good for dry and sensitive, delicate skin. I used it and got that ‘stripped of my skins natural oil’ feeling like the other times I’ve used soap (I typically use body wash), so that felt strange to me. I thought despite its oils and claims for being gentle I was going to end up with really dry skin post shower. Turns out I was wrong, and instead of feeling dry and taught, it was just left with a really really clean feeling, and my skin was still soft. Perhaps I’ll convert back to soap! Biome – Body Soap
- You can also take a tablet – this would be used only on the occasion of upset stomachs, food poisoning, or cases of diarrhoea to help settle the stomach and halt the runs. Charcotabs are the most common brand, available in pharmacies. I’ve used this before with a bout of food poisoning in Malaysia – it did help.
Where can I get some?
Simply click the links below for your preferred charcoal source. These are not affiliate links.