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Is activated charcoal safe? 6 facts about this health trend

M. Elizabeth Swenor, D.O.
for Henry Ford Health System

Activated charcoal may sound like a funny thing to put on your plate or lather on your face, but recently, it’s been appearing in everything from waffles and smoothies to face wash and toothpaste. Why? Many users believe the black powder can brighten teeth, temper body odor and help the body detox. And while there may be truth to some of those claims, not every charcoal product is safe to use.

Many people are looking for ways to reduce inflammation and detox, so there’s a huge market for these products. The problem is, there’s no agency overseeing the safety or effectiveness of activated charcoal, and it’s not governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Breaking down the facts on activated charcoal

Before you slip some activated charcoal in your morning protein shake, it’s important to note that activated charcoal is not the same as the charcoal you buy at Home Depot for your backyard barbeque, nor is it made from the same stuff as the char on your overdone toast. Instead, it comes from burning specific types of wood — including bamboo, birch and balsam — at super-high temperatures, then oxidizing it.

The particles left behind are almost pure carbon, so they’re able to suck up moisture and chemicals. But that doesn’t mean using it is safe or should be done without medical supervision.

Here are six facts you should know before you purchase anything with activated charcoal:

  1. It draws out impurities. Charcoal has a rich history as a medical treatment. Its porous texture binds to toxins and prevents your body from absorbing them. That’s one reason it’s a staple in hospital emergency rooms. Doctors commonly use it as an antidote for food poisoning and drug toxicity.
  2. Putting it in food can be dangerous. There’s no way of knowing what is in an activated charcoal product. It’s a completely uncontrolled industry, so it’s best to leave it out of your diet.
  3. It’s abrasive. While activated charcoal is marketed as a tooth-whitening agent, it can be abrasive and ruin tooth enamel, particularly if it’s used on a regular basis.
  4. It can bind to medications, vitamins and minerals. Activated charcoal does bind to chemical toxins to flush them out, but it also binds to nutrients. Take too much and you could compromise your nutrient status or interfere with the way your body absorbs medication. It can make blood pressure medication and even birth control pills less effective.
  5. It can help patients with kidney disease. For patients with end-stage renal disease, activated charcoal may be a viable alternative to dialysis. The reason: It binds to urea and other toxins, reducing the number of waste products that filter through your kidneys. If you have kidney disease, talk to your doctor.
  6. It can minimize body odor. For people who suffer from something called Fish Odor Syndrome, activated charcoal can bind to the stinky compounds the body produces and help reduce unpleasant odors.

The bottom line

Activated charcoal is still a largely unstudied and misunderstood compound and as far as safety goes, consumers are at the mercy of the manufacturer. Any chemical that has the potential to do good also has the potential to harm. Only use activated charcoal under the direction of a medical professional, particularly if you’re planning to ingest it.

Dr. M. Elizabeth Swenor leads the functional medicine program at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine. Her goal is to empower her patients with the knowledge and tools they need to achieve optimal health and wellness. Dr. Swenor strongly believes that all patients can improve their overall health by reducing whole body stress and inflammation by correcting metabolic imbalances through good nutrition.

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To make an appointment with a Henry Ford doctor or provider, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) today.

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