Inky, black-as-night activated charcoal products have cropped up on store shelves and trendy restaurant menus (not to mention your social media feeds) with increasing frequency lately. Whether you've been itching to try them for awhile or you enthusiastically embraced the trend right away, you might not even realize that there are some little-known facts about the health effects of using charcoal products that you need to know more about.
Activated charcoal (also known as activated carbon) has been added to everything from beauty and personal care products to juices, lemonade, cocktails, ice cream, coffee, and snack products because of its purported detoxification abilities. Fayne L. Frey, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of FryFace, tells Romper via email that activated charcoal is porous, which is both one of the things that differentiates it from regular charcoal and what allows it to grab on to things in the body, so to speak. While some professionals consider it safe, in theory, especially in very small amounts, there are some ways that it can potentially affect your health, for better or worse, that you might not be aware of, but could be important, depending on your personal circumstances.
Because of this, there's some controversy within the cocktail community, in particular, about whether or not it should be used or if there needs to be some sort of warning given, as Eater reported and as bartenders have told me in the past. From how it might affect medications and more, here's what you might want to know.
1. It Can Interfere With Medications
"Activated charcoal can interfere with medications in two ways," Dr. Daniel Rusyniak, MD, an Indiana University Health toxicologist and the director of the Indiana Poison Center at IU Health, tells Romper by email. "If you take activated charcoal within a few hours of taking a medication, it will prevent that medication from being absorbed. So, if you take your oral diabetes medication and then a little while later take some charcoal, you will prevent some of the diabetes medication from being absorbed by the body and as a result your blood sugar could be higher."
Additionally, some drugs, like seizure drugs, are processed differently by the body, but can still potentially be affected if you take activated charcoal. "Some medications undergo what we call enterohepatic circulation," Rusyniak says. "This means you take the medicine, it is absorbed in the blood stream, it goes to the liver, which then excretes it along with bile it into the bowel where the drug can be reabsorbed. Another way to think about it is that drug cycles between the blood the liver the bowel and back to the blood. So, if you take charcoal and it is sitting in your bowel it will prevent a drug excreted into the bowel from being absorbed back into the blood stream."
Another common medication that activated charcoal can interfere with is birth control. Avery Glasser, who co-founded Bittermens with his wife Janet, told Imbibe that he checked with a doctor about whether or not activated charcoal might interfere with some medications.
This could be dangerous for people who rely on these kinds of medications to keep them safe and healthy. So if you take anything regularly, you should probably check with your doctor before jumping onto the activated charcoal bandwagon.
2. It Might Help With Body Odor
If you're dealing with a bit of body odor, there's some potential that activated charcoal might be able to help, though a definitive verdict is still out. "The theory behind this is that activated carbon increases the odor’s ability to escape into air, since this material literally increases the surface area of the skin upon which it is applied," Dr. Andrew J. Newman, DO, a dermatology resident, tells Romper by email. "It’s like taking your the odor from your limited-sized underarm then airing it out in a football field. This concept of using activated carbon for treating odor or other skin ailments is at its infancy; accordingly, activated carbon is something that only some dermatologists would feel comfortable recommending for their patients."
3. It Can Make You Constipated
Sharon T. McLaughlin-Weber, MD, FACS, the CEO and founder of Wrinkle Helper, tells Romper in an email exchange that ingesting activated charcoal can cause constipation. She says that she doesn't recommend drinking it unless you're dealing with a poisoning situation (it's sometimes used in ERs for this very purpose). At the very least, you definitely want to make sure you're not overdoing it with the charcoal.
4. It Can Interfere With The Absorption Of Vitamins
McLaughlin-Weber says that, like the issue with the absorption of medications, activated charcoal can also interfere with the absorption of vitamins. You might be sort of counteracting some of the benefits of drinking fresh fruit and vegetable juices if there's activated charcoal in the drink as well because your body isn't able to easily absorb the vitamins and minerals — they'll bind to the charcoal.
5. It Can Whiten Your Teeth
Though activated charcoal might help with the surface stains on your teeth, you still have to be somewhat careful if you're using it as a whitening agent. "You can take some charcoal powder (please make sure it's medical grade) and lightly brush with it after mixing it with some distilled water," Dr. Edward A. Alvarez, DDS, PC, a cosmetic dentist, tells Romper by email. "The charcoal is abrasive, so it will remove any build up and external stain on the teeth, but if you brush too hard, it can damage or dull both your enamel, or any dental restorations (bonding, veneers, crowns) you may have." Also, if you're going to use activated charcoal powder on your teeth, make sure that you're purchasing something that's food grade. Alvarez recommends powders made from coconut or bamboo.
Additionally, Alvarez cautions that you shouldn't just use charcoal powder and water as a substitute for toothpaste. He says that you should follow up the activated charcoal with your regular toothpaste.
6. It Can Dry Out The Skin
In terms of beauty products containing activated charcoal, Frey says that you may or may not notice some of the supposed benefits of activated charcoal — and that some of the claims made about activated charcoal aren't always completely clear — but that purchasing products with activated charcoal in them probably won't hurt, per se. McLaughlin-Weber says that you might want to be careful if you have dry and sensitive skin, however. "Activated charcoal may be too drying for dry sensitive skin as dry skin need their natural oils to remain moist," she adds.
If you're going to use, eat, or drink activated charcoal products, it's still good to have as much information as possible so that you don't find yourself with unexpected — or unintended and unwanted — consequences as a result.
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