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The science behind activated charcoal

As someone who’s always looking for cheap ways to solve cosmetic problems, I’ve read a lot about the many ways activated charcoal is supposed to benefit you. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve learned, from the scientific facts to researched-backed theories and an even longer list of maybes:

Many skin care products, juice bars, and health brands claim that activated charcoal can supposedly:

  • whiten teeth
  • prevent hangovers
  • promote healthy digestion and alleviate gas and bloating
  • manage body odor
  • treat acne
  • relieve itching and pain caused by insects, snake bites, and poison ivy or oak
  • prevent cellular damage in the liver and kidneys — and in doing so prevent premature aging
  • reduce cholesterol

What it definitely can’t do is help you lose weight or provide nutritional value — it actually absorbs other things of value. Drinking water and eating more fiber helps your body detox itself far better.

So at the end of the day, almost all home remedy claims on activated charcoal aren’t backed by scientific evidence. There’s older studies on the benefits for reducing gas and bloating, but even that’s not definitive proof. Yet some people still strongly stand by activated charcoal’s recommendations.

So, as an editor of health information, I decided to test three of the most popular claims — with some scientific basis — for myself:

  • acne treatment
  • teeth whitening
  • hangover cure

Skin care brands have been using charcoal’s reputation as an absorbent substance to sell an array of face washes and face masks that contain charcoal. So far there aren’t any studies that test charcoal’s ability to absorb oil on the face. However, two studies found some evidence that activated charcoal and clay masks are antibacterial. Perhaps they can kill the bacteria that cause acne?

The science-based beauty blog Lab Muffin theorized that using charcoal on the skin will have the same effect as using a clay mask — if you leave it on for hours.

So, as a “control,” I used a bentonite clay mask on my nose, which is the oiliest part of my face. I left the mask on my face for about 20 minutes before washing it off. A few days later, I mixed the bentonite clay power with charcoal and water.

The biggest difference I noticed is that the clay mask mixed with charcoal made my face less itchy than the times I’ve used clay alone..

My skin did feel nice and smooth after the charcoal clay mask, but the effects weren’t particularly long lasting. But I’ve never heard of a face mask that cures all of your skin woes after only one use.

Would I do it again? Charcoal seems like a decent addition to a clay mask, if only to keep it from being so itchy. It might be better at controlling bacteria than oil.

So here’s how regular non-whitening toothpaste works: It removes stains on your teeth by rubbing them off. There is some scientific evidence that activated charcoal may be an effective teeth whitener because activated charcoal is more abrasive than toothpaste. This means that it can potentially whiten teeth, but also damage enamel.

To test the effectiveness of activated charcoal — but also aiming to avoid harming my enamel by rubbing it directly on my teeth — I mixed it with coconut oil and then oil pulled. Oil pulling involves swishing coconut oil around in your mouth, and studies have found that it can help reduce gingivitis and plaque.

For two weeks, I broke open one capsule of charcoal powder and mixed it with coconut oil, oil pulling for two minutes in the morning. After I spit out the mixture, I brushed my teeth with a non-electric toothbrush and regular non-whitening toothpaste.

Nobody tells you charcoal powder is super messy

It got all over my sink, hands, and face. That’s a lot of extra clean up than there would be with the standard toothbrush and toothpaste. I would spit the charcoal oil in the sink and use hot water to melt the coconut oil, trying to properly clean the sink (which I found out at the end of my experiment is really bad for your drain — so don’t do that).

I took pictures every day while doing this experiment, and although I don’t feel like the pictures show much improvement, I feel like my teeth do look whiter. But maybe this is just the placebo effect — after a mouthful of black teeth, any amount of white is going to look white.

Would I do it again? Nah, I’m glad to return to just a plain old toothpaste and toothbrush, because it’s so much simpler. There are toothpastes with charcoal already in them, if you want to try it.

A lot of people have theories about the perfect way to prevent a hangover (besides not drinking). Since charcoal can absorb some poisons in the stomach, people have wondered if it can prevent you from getting drunk or hungover.

One study on animals showed that consuming charcoal at the same time as alcohol can prevent blood alcohol level from rising. Some websites, forums, and magazines recommend charcoal based on the theory that it’ll absorb the sulfates in wine, or the sugar in cocktail mixers. But there isn’t much research to support that. Charcoal is used for specific poisons, not alcohol. The stomach absorbs alcohol too quickly.

But I still decided to try. There’s no official guideline on when to take the activated charcoal, but I decided to take the pill after, rather than before, since I had to test the hangover cure potential.

So, on my birthday — the night I drink most excessively, thanks to many generous friends — I decided to put this method to the test. After three bars, lots of drinks, a round (or two?) of shots, I took a charcoal pill. It seems prudent to say here: I’ve learned that birthday or not, drinking “for science” feels horrible. Stick with less than moderation — one drink and then water, water, water.

The next morning, I woke up feeling — not great, but much better than I expected considering all of the drinking I did “for science.” Based on the animal study, I think that the charcoal absorbed a lot of the alcohol I’d consumed immediately before taking the capsule.

Would I do it again? It might be more effective to take a pill before drinking, although you may end up drinking more, which is ill-advised. But if charcoal really only absorbs the alcohol you’ve drank very recently, it seems more effective to drink in moderation. Plus, you might get major side-eye from the bartender when you offer a plastic bag of black pills to your friends… I mean, I did.

The Mayo Clinic has a long list of medications that interact or lose effectiveness when activated charcoal is taken by mouth. You should never take activated charcoal if you have a history of bleeding in the stomach or colon, had recent surgery, or have problems with digestion. It’s possible to overdose on activated charcoal. We recommend not taking activated charcoal by mouth without first talking to your doctor.

The FDA does not approve or monitor activated charcoal or any other natural remedies.

Emily Gadd is a writer and editor who lives in San Francisco. She spends her spare time listening to music, watching movies, wasting her life on the internet, and going to concerts.