Activated Charcoal: Healthy or Hype?

Updated: Oct. 31, 2018 at 9:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The detox craze is big business, and activated charcoal is one ingredient that has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. You can find it in all sorts of products - but is it healthy or just hype? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Many of us think of charcoal as being used to light up the barbecue grill, but it has been used for thousands of years by cultures around the world.

“Charcoal is one of the remedies in Asia. We use charcoal for cleaning and detoxification,” said Ling Chan, a master aesthetician.

Ochsner family medicine Dr. Whitney Hardy said charcoal is also used in modern medicine.

“If a patient were to come into the emergency room after taking something poisonous, you could give them activated charcoal and it would bind the material," Hardy said.

This binding allows charcoal to draw out toxins, which is why you’re seeing it in everything from food to toothpaste, supplements and skincare products - including the charcoal facial, which is offered by some professionals like Chan.

“When we form this mask, [removing toxins is] the purpose,” Chan said. “Because a lot of people in the skin see large pores, blackheads, so that is why they can help absorb those impurities.”

There are also the do-it-yourselfers who have taken the internet by storm, posting videos of their attempts on YouTube or other social media.

According to Hardy, activated charcoal skincare products may not hurt you, but they also may not be worth your money and time.

“These are the safest ways you can use activated charcoal, because they’re just going superficial, however are they really detoxifying to the level they claim they are? The jury is out on that,” Hardy said.

Charcoal toothpastes have also caught fire online. Some of the toothpastes sold in stores and online are advertised as being fluoride free, whitening toothpastes that remove plaque, freshen breath and taste awesome. And while it may seem implausible to use something black to make your teeth whiter, there are people who claim it works.

But according to Diem Do, a local dentist, they can also damage your teeth.

“It feels very gritty, kind of gritty, and that’s where the abrasiveness comes in,” Do said. “Because of the abrasiveness of the toothpaste, it can actually wear away your enamel.”

Do tells his patients to be cautious and that charcoal toothpaste could end up staining your teeth in the long run.

“Once the enamel wears off, you never get it back. So initially you may see some whitening results because it takes away surface stains,” Do said. “But over time and over use, you wear away your enamel, and your dentin is exposed and you can see some yellowish tones to your teeth.”

The charcoal craze has taken off in the last couple of years.

“Lately it’s been mixed in shakes, smoothies, other food products. You see that a lot on social media.” Hardy said. “Companies that market food products with activated charcoal may tell you there is a health benefit, but with activated charcoal, it’s strongest in its pure form, so by mixing it with something like ice cream, it’s not really detoxing anything.”

The bottom line is while many believe activated charcoal holds countless health benefits, doctors say it's one of those trends you may want to re-think.

“I guess I can say don’t believe the hype, because a lot of these claims have not been backed by science,” Hardy said,

One more thing to consider is that activated charcoal doesn’t just remove toxins. It will bind with all sorts of things, including some of the vitamins, minerals, medications and antioxidants in your food, making them less effective.

So before you start using activated charcoal or any other trendy “health” product, be sure to talk to your doctor.

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