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What Is Activated Charcoal – 6 Uses & Health Benefits

Until a few months ago, I’d never even heard of activated charcoal (also known as activated carbon). However, I soon learned that this substance provides a number of amazing benefits.

While some people use it to cleanse their skin or whiten their teeth, the true value of activated charcoal is in its ability to remove toxins from your body. For instance, if you’ve ingested a poisonous substance, or if you’ve been bitten by a deadly snake or spider, activated charcoal could save your life.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

People have been using activated charcoal for thousands of years. In World War I, activated charcoal was used in gas masks to prevent soldiers from being poisoned by chemical exposure, and it has been used to treat water (making it tasteless and odorless) since 1930.

Activated charcoal and regular charcoal are almost identical – the only difference is that activated charcoal has been created solely for medicinal use. To create activated charcoal, regular charcoal is heated with a gas that causes the charcoal to expand, creating a porous surface that traps toxins.

Activated charcoal works because it chemically binds other substances to its surface and can absorb thousands of times its own weight. It also has an incredibly large surface area due to all of its pores – one cubic inch of charcoal has the surface area equivalent to a 150,000 square-foot field. This is why just a bit of charcoal can absorb so many toxins, atoms, and ions.

Activated charcoal is available for purchase in capsule form (clear capsules containing powdered charcoal), or can be bought loosely in bulk.

Benefits of Activated Charcoal

1. Rid Your Body of Toxins in Emergency Situations

According to a study published in the journal Medical Toxicology and Adverse Drug Experience, activated charcoal prevents the gastrointestinal absorption of a wide variety of drugs and toxins in emergency situations, and also increases their elimination even after they’ve been absorbed by the body. This includes an overdose of:

  • Pharmaceutical drugs such as acetaminophen or aspirin, opium, cocaine, and morphine
  • Toxins from pesticides (including DDT)
  • Mercury, lead, and other chemicals

Activated charcoal is most effective if it’s administered within the first hour of ingestion of the toxin. However, there are some substances that activated charcoal does not work on:

  • Alcohol
  • Cyanide
  • Metals such as iron and lithium
  • Certain acids that quickly damage internal tissues

Simply put, if you or someone you know has ingested a toxic substance, administering activated charcoal may inactivate the toxicity of the substance and help them pass it far more quickly than their body could on its own. If they’ve ingested a highly toxic substance, a quick administration of activated charcoal could save their life.

Call 911
It’s important to realize that in the event of an emergency, a qualified health professional should administer activated charcoal, as the needed dosage depends largely on the person being treated, the drug or poison ingested, and how much was ingested. How much toxin is already in the stomach is a huge consideration, because activated charcoal is like a sponge – once its cavities are full, it stops working.

However, having some activated charcoal on hand can buy you some time in the event of a life-threatening poison or drug overdose, since professionals at Poison Control or 911 operators can advise you on how much charcoal to administer.

What Not to Do
You shouldn’t take activated charcoal if you’re taking prescription medication, as it could render your medication useless. It also shouldn’t be taken regularly, like a supplement, because it will reduce your body’s absorption of important nutrients from food.

Furthermore, you should never use charcoal briquettes in place of activated charcoal in the event of a poisoning. Dangerous petrochemicals have been added to commercial briquettes, and it is not the same as activated charcoal. This is why you should purchase medical-grade activated charcoal to use in the event of an emergency. You can find safe activated charcoal online at Amazon or in many health food stores.

2. Relieve Bites and Bee Stings

Mixing a poultice of activated charcoal with a bit of water and cornstarch or flaxseed powder can help cure bee stings, poison ivy rashes, snake bites, spider bites (including highly poisoning bites from the Brown Recluse or Black Widow), and other poisoning bites.

A paper published by I. Makalinao and A.D. Woolf of Harvard Medical School mentions the effectiveness of a charcoal poultice for drawing out poisons from insect and spider bites. Additionally, there are many stories online from people who claim that their lives were saved by applying an activated charcoal poultice to bee stings or spider bites – especially those who are highly allergic to bee stings and didn’t have epinephrine on hand.

Relieve Bites Bee Stings

3. Reduce Acne and Improve Skin Health

Because activated charcoal removes toxins, it can help reduce the instances of acne and other skin impurities you might suffer from. It also works wonders for completely removing makeup.

To use activated charcoal on your skin, mix one (or one-half) capsule of the powder into a teaspoon of aloe vera gel, one teaspoon of water or rosewater, five drops of tea tree oil, and a pinch of sea salt. Mix these ingredients together until you have an even consistency. But be aware that this face mask is going to be black, and while it can stain your clothing and counter tops, it won’t stain your skin. Apply to your skin, let it dry, and then rinse off. Your skin will feel amazing.

There are also many soaps made with activated charcoal, which are also effective at treating your skin. You can find a wide selection of handmade charcoal soaps and face masks on Etsy.

4. Whiten Teeth

While you might not think that a black powder could actually whiten teeth, you’d be surprised – all you have to do is sprinkle charcoal onto a toothpaste-ladened toothbrush, and brush away.

Your mouth may look really bizarre when you brush with charcoal, but if you do this daily, you’ll notice a difference within a couple of weeks. Activated charcoal is odorless and tasteless, so aside from having temporarily black teeth, you won’t be able to tell you’ve got charcoal in your mouth.

Keep in mind that activated charcoal is a fine black powder. Although it won’t stain your skin, it can be messy to use, so keep a wet paper towel on hand for a quick clean-up in case you spill.

It’s also important to consider your teeth’s sensitivity. Any whitening agent can weaken your tooth enamel over time – this is true with commercial products, such as Crest Whitening Strips, and it’s true for activated charcoal. If you notice your teeth becoming more sensitive after using activated charcoal, cut down on brushing with it to just once or twice per week, or stop using it altogether.

5. Reduce or Eliminate Gas

Activated charcoal can be effective for reducing gas, especially after eating foods, such as beans, that commonly create excess gas. It can also relieve an upset stomach or nausea. However, it is worth repeating that activated charcoal should only be taken occasionally to relieve these symptoms, and should not be used every day.

6. Body Detox

Since charcoal does such an amazing job ridding your body of toxins, some people also use it to rid their body of built-up toxins. The length of these cleanses can vary, but they often last a week or two.

There are many different recipes for using activated charcoal as a cleansing/detox agent, and it’s important that you find a recipe that works for your lifestyle and body weight. If you take too much charcoal, you could become constipated and sluggish. If you take too little, it won’t be effective.

Keep in mind that if you do use charcoal several times weekly as part of a cleanse, you must increase your water consumption, or you could quickly become constipated.

Final Word

Remember: Never use activated charcoal for any treatment in lieu of a qualified medical professional. Activated charcoal can be used in emergency situations where your life or the life of someone else is at stake, but this is only to buy you valuable time to get to an emergency room for qualified care.

Do you use activated charcoal to improve your health? If so, what results have you seen?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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