If you’re anything like me, when you think of charcoal, you picture hot dogs atop a grill in a public park on the Fourth of July. The scent of charcoal is magical — something akin to the quintessential smell of summer. But the taste? Hmm … I’m not too tempted to try it.

But, drawn by the supposed benefits of activated charcoal, many people are putting it in their mouths (and on their skin). Whether in powder, pills or liquid form, activated charcoal is enjoying a star turn as a quasi-miraculous substance — one capable of offering a powerful and effective detox due to its unique toxin-combating qualities.

A History of Effectiveness

But, while activated charcoal is trending right now, it’s not exactly new. French chemist Michel Bertrand discovered its benefits in the early 19th century. He famously demonstrated its effectiveness in treating poisonous substances by swallowing 150 times the lethal dosage of arsenic trioxide — now that’s some confidence.

Since then, users have hailed activated charcoal as the universal antidote for most poisons, and the benefits of activated charcoal also include a range of beauty and hygiene applications.

Activated charcoal may have something for us all as we try to improve our health routines.

What is Activated Charcoal?

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization defines activated charcoal as a “solid, porous, carbonaceous material prepared by carbonizing and activating organic substances.” The raw material may include sawdust, coconut shells, peal, coal and more. These materials are “carbonized and activated at high temperature with or without the addition of inorganic salts in a stream of activating gases such as steam or carbon dioxide.”

Basically, activated charcoal is a black, insoluble and odorless powder capable of trapping toxins and chemicals through a process known as adsorption. That’s “adsorption” rather than “absorption.” Here’s the difference. With absorption, the body absorbs elements that then enter the bloodstream. With adsorption, the elements bind to the surface where they attract toxins and gas.

In order to activate charcoal, you need to heat it using a gas, which causes it to expand. This will allow the charcoal to create a porous surface that can then trap toxins and other substances much larger than itself.

As mentioned earlier, activated charcoal has been traditionally used for cases of poisoning, and occasionally for gastrointestinal issues. (You know, ahem, emptying things out.) In addition, it has also shown effective in treating patients with chronic kidney disease, as well as for removing heavy metals from the environment. Some say the benefits of activated charcoal include relief for minor ailments — rashes, sore throats, spider and mosquito bites.

In general, activated charcoal is harmless when inhaled, digested and when it comes into contact with skin.

But I’m Not Sick (Or Poisoned)

Besides activated charcoal’s medical benefits, many take advantage of its toxin-trapping qualities for cosmetic improvements. Here’s a look at how activated charcoal is commonly used today.

Teeth Whitening

Many use activated charcoal for dental care — teeth whitening to be more exact. Activated charcoal is able to adsorb substances that cause staining on teeth, and it can also protect against cavities and gum disease. Use activated charcoal, and you can expect to end up with a white, healthier smile.

There are two common ways to apply activated charcoal on your teeth. You can choose to buy toothpaste made with activated charcoal, or you can use activated charcoal powder before brushing your teeth. The second application method is far more effective. We even shared some tips and recommends on where to buy activated charcoal for teeth whitening. Check it out if you’re interested.


And here’s a bonus use for activated charcoal, though one whose research is inconclusive at this point: Activated charcoal can be used to cure hangovers. Some users have reported feeling better when taking activated charcoal pills.

Intestinal Issues

As mentioned earlier, activated charcoal can also be used to relieve bloating and intestinal gas, though a scientific consensus hasn’t been reached yet on that front. It has even been claimed that activated charcoal can cleanse your body of toxic mold. (Toxic mold is known to cause depression and other health issues.)


Activated charcoal can also be incorporated into your beauty routine, used as a facemask or even as eyeliner. Recipes vary, but water and activated charcoal powder are typically the ingredients for both.

Water Filtration

And, finally, activated charcoal can also be used to filter water because it adsorbs the impurities contained in the liquid without any detrimental side effect.

So activated charcoal is definitely versatile, and you can see why it’s now viewed as some sort of wonder substance.

Are the Benefits of Activated Charcoal Safe?

As with any other substance, activated charcoal might have side effects, especially if taken together with other types of medications. Some users experience lead to gastrointestinal blockages and black stools.

Make sure to immediately call a doctor if you experience any stomach swelling or intense pain. Do you take vitamins or minerals for medical reasons? If so, activated charcoal can also interfere with their absorption. Avoid this situation by taking charcoal only 2 hours after consuming other substances.

What’s the Verdict?

Don’t get too frightened by the warnings. Reports of adverse reactions to activated charcoal are few and far between. Give it a try for teeth whitening, bloating, intestinal gas and hangovers.

Just know that the effects in each of these cases are lacking scientific support. Activated charcoal may deliver the results you’re looking for, but it’s possible it does not. Some people swear by it, and others don’t see any impact at all. But those who do swear by it see activated charcoal as a way to detox the body and lead a healthier lifestyle.

Looking to get started with this wonder substance? Here’s a look at where to buy activated charcoal — as well as recommendations for the best products on the market.

Have you discovered the benefits of activated charcoal? Let us know in the comments section below, or you can write to us directly through our contact page.