Charcoal has been touted as a health phenomena, appearing in virtually everything from detox shots in your local juice bar to little black pills at your health food shop (claiming to cure hangovers) – you can even clean your teeth with it. LA restaurants offer Activated Charcoal (AC) cocktails, while charcoal pancakes have been trending on Instagram. Fans say it detoxifies the body, but there’s a distinct lack of scientific fact to back it up. So, is there a dark side to this ‘health’ habit?
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal (AC) is charcoal, also known as carbon, that has been treated with high heat to open up the millions of pores on its surface area. This porosity means that the charcoal can attract and absorb toxins like a magnet. As a result, it is used as a last-resort treatment in ERs to treat drug overdoses after the stomach has been pumped, and is also one of the key filters used in dialysis machines. This ability to absorb life-threatening poisons has somehow been translated into being a great solution to soaking up our ‘everyday toxins’, but the reality is not as simple as that.
Why is it unsafe?
You’ve likely seen headlines warning about the health risks of eating barbecued meat or burnt toast. The increased levels of carbon in these foods raises the risk of carcinogens (substances that have the potential to cause cancer), and the UK’s Food Standards Agency has issued public warnings over one particular substance, acrylamide – a chemical bi-product of carbon – which forms in foods when cooked at temperatures above 250ºF (think charred, not golden). AC goes through this same heating process but at an even higher temperature, and produces the same chemical compounds.
Does it have any other effects?
If consumed over an extended period, medical experts believe AC can be dangerous. “Firstly, it has the ability to absorb any toxin, but it will also absorb any other nutrients – it has no way of distinguishing the good and the bad,” says nutritionist Eve Kalinik. “Secondly, and even more worryingly, it has an effect on the way in which medicines are absorbed by the body, preventing them from working properly – this applies to birth control, too.”
The only benefit of using charcoal is, it seems, external. Dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams says: “Charcoal is a great ingredient for oily skin and clogged pores as it draws out impurities and excess oil. It can also reduce inflammation, so overall it’s a helpful ingredient for acne-prone skin.”
So it’s a good detoxifier?
Yes, but as a last-resort treatment for drug overdoses rather than the latest wellness accessory. “We know it’s absorbent, but charcoal cannot work out what is a toxin or not, so if you’re adding it as a supplement to your carefully blended daily protein shake or green smoothie, it will simply absorb any and every nutrient that you’re trying to top up on,” says Kalinik. “You’re better off supporting your natural ‘detoxing’ processes by drinking more water and getting plenty of fiber in your diet.”
And for cleaning your teeth?
The Journal of the American Dental Association states that there is no evidence to show that charcoal is effective or safe for teeth, and they have yet to approve any AC toothpaste on the market. “People think that because charcoal is grittier than conventional toothpastes, it gets stains off teeth faster,” says New York cosmetic dentist Dr Andi-Jean Miro. “In reality, it scratches away the top white layer of your teeth, known as the enamel, leaving the more porous and yellow layer underneath known as the dentin.”
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