What is activated charcoal?

What is activated charcoal?


Black magic?

Activated charcoal may be the new black, but is there any substance to the claims the health supplement industry is making, or is it all a marketing ploy?

Has your Instagram feed of all things unicorn, mermaid and magical been replaced by the appearance of its polar opposite – the love of activated charcoal? While the health bar around the corner is juicing it up and baristas are swirling frothy milk through its chic, coal-like colour, activated charcoal may not be all the health industry markets it to be. Like any other miracle fad diet or pill that will slim your waist in seconds, activated charcoal has seen growing popularity, even spilling over into the food and beauty industries.


Hailed as an amazing detoxifying agent, activated charcoal is formed when natural charcoal substances, such as coconut, peat or wood, are subjected to extreme temperatures with the addition of gases, like oxygen, which
increases the charcoal’s surface area for adsorption. The main idea is that taking activated charcoal in pill, capsule
or powder form will cause the charcoal to bind with unwanted toxins and chemicals in your body, and transport
them through the digestive system, in this way cleansing your body for overall health. But why would you need to rid
your body of toxins by using activated charcoal? After all, your body is designed to regulate itself, through homeostasis, and cleanse through your liver, kidney and lymph system.

The claims

Taking activated charcoal is said to:

  • Aid digestion
  • Ease gas or bloating
  • Detoxify the body and stomach
  • Prevent a hangover
  • Assist with anti-ageing
  • Whiten your teeth
  • Remove impurities and excess oil in skincare products
  • Reduce cholesterol

Activated charcoal has been used medically for over a hundred years to detoxify the body from certain drug and
medication overdoses because of its amazing ability to bind to these chemicals in the stomach before they can be
absorbed into the body and bloodstream. ‘But keep in mind,’ advises Nicola Drabble, a dietician at Wanderers Sports
Medical Centre in Joburg, ‘that it will do the same to foods, vitamins and minerals, so people taking it could risk developing nutritional deficiencies.’

According to Healthybutsmart.com, a website dedicated to helping users make evidence-based decisions when
it comes to their health, ‘Over the past 30 years there have been 316 published studies listed in PubMed where the term “activated charcoal” appears in both the title and abstract of the journal article… However, only 159 are human
studies – others are animal, plant, and laboratory studies. With only 159 human studies conducted over 30 years, it
highlights very little research interest in activated charcoal.’


Some studies had as few as seven participants (for example, the study on activated charcoal’s effect on cholesterol levels), making it difficult to draw a conclusive argument on its so-called superpowers.

While research is inconclusive on the benefits of taking activated charcoal as a daily supplement, on its own it’s harmless and doesn’t negatively impact the body. However, healthcare professionals recommend you do not take activated charcoal on a daily or regular basis.

As Nicola says, ‘Your liver and kidneys are designed to detox so there’s never really a need to take anything else. Following a healthy balanced diet that includes all the food groups – wholewheat carbohydrates, lean proteins, low-fat dairy products, and five fruit and vegetables a day – is enough to keep you healthy.’

Activated charcoal should not be taken by individuals on regular medication. Due to its highly adsorbent nature, it can adsorb medication, even contraceptive pills, resulting in a loss of efficacy. It’s recommended to wait at least two hours
between taking activated charcoal and other prescription drugs.



Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Your Family’s Digital editor. Avid retweeter. When I’m not scrolling Instagram you’ll find me in my garden. Keen on DIY and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some chalk paint.


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