Is Activated Charcoal Really Safe?
Black charcoal / activated charcoal – call it whatever you like. It’s all the rage in food items (black food) and also in the health and beauty spheres.
Black ice cream, charcoal face masks, black drinks….. activated charcoal is being used in more and more things.
So Why is Black Charcoal (Activated Charcoal) So Popular?
People and companies cite several reasons for including black charcoal.
- One of the most prevalent reasons is its health benefits – it’s said to be great for detox.
- And food looks “interesting” when it’s black.
- It’s said to be good for skin care
- Charcoal has also found its way into dentistry as a teeth whitener.
Does Activated Charcoal Work – And Is It Safe?
Let’s look at each of these reasons in more detail.
In terms of a detox, it’s claimed that activated charcoal “attracts” toxins and draws them out. It can indeed attract some substances – but only in the gut. This means that for detoxifying the body it is not very useful in many situations.
Black food tends to attract premium pricing, improving profits for suppliers while using a relatively cheap ingredient. It certainly looks interesting – foodie magazines and Instagram are full of black charcoal food.
As activated charcoal works only in the gut, it does not do any good in skin care such as face masks. One advertisement for a charcoal face mask claims that it “acts like a magnet to draw out the most deeply-rooted impurities” – I’d call that misleading advertising! On YouTube you’ll find recipes for DIY charcoal masks, which typically involve charcoal powder and PVA glue. (Glue, in a face mask? Really? Good grief!).
And as for your teeth – well, it seems odd that a black powder should be used as a whitener, but anyway, there’s very little scientific proof that it helps. In addition, charcoal is an abrasive substance – so prolonged use could actually damage tooth enamel.
But there’s one thing you SHOULD know.
Activated charcoal is used in hospitals to help treat patients suffering from an overdose or acute poisoning. Vets may use it to help dogs that have eaten substances that are toxic to them, like chocolate. Why? Because activated charcoal can adsorb certain toxins in the gut before they enter the bloodstream.
You Need To Know This About Activated Charcoal
Yes, activated charcoal is used in hospitals to help remove poisons. And it’s exactly this property that means you shouldn’t be eating it regularly.
Because if you’re taking any medication, there is evidence that the charcoal will reduce its effectiveness by adsorbing some of the medication’s useful ingredients.
In addition, it adsorbs water from the gut, which can lead to dehydration and constipation.
It will adsorb some nutrients and minerals that it comes into contact with. This means that the current detox trend of adding activated charcoal to juices, smoothies or food can reduce the nutrient content of the food.
OK, so now we know if the health claims are true or not.
But what about its effect on the environment? First, let’s find out how it’s made.
How is Black Charcoal (Activated Charcoal) Actually Made?
Activated charcoal powder is a manufactured substance. It’s made by slowly burning coconut shells, bamboo or wood. It becomes highly porous and nonpolar, which means it can adsorb (that is, bind to, as opposed to absorb) some toxins and odors.
So what’s the impact of black charcoal food on the environment?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that activated charcoal is made by burning trees – and that’s lousy for the environment and climate change, because it’s removing carbon storage.
However, it’s not ALL bad news.
- White charcoal, called binchotan, could replace dehumidifiers and water purifiers which need to be regularly replaced. Instead, mould, moisture, odour, particulates and chemicals in air and water “stick” to charcoal which is said to last longer, so it’s touted as being more ecofriendly.
- From quick-growing trees or branches, it’s not such an environmental burden. Bamboo for example grows very quickly, so activated charcoal made from bamboo is better for the environment than that made from slow-growing oak. (Although charcoal made from oak lasts longer than bamboo charcoal).
- Biochar, another variant of charcoal, is said to help store carbon and thus help climate change.
The Activated Charcoal / Black Charcoal Fad
I always worry when something becomes a “fad”. So many people rush out and buy whatever-it-is that the effects on the planet are normally horrendous.
- People buying owls after Harry Potter, fish after Finding Nemo and wolves after Game of Thrones, do more than just create demand, there are animal cruelty issues as well, when people find the cute animal isn’t quite what they expected.
- A new fad game or toy – which is nearly always made of plastic – propounds the global warming problems associated with fossil fuels.
- The latest gadget fad means increased demand for rare earth metals and other resources.
Conclusion – SHOULD You Use Activated Charcoal?
Here’s my opinion. If you enjoy activated charcoal and black food, then in small doses it’s fine. Be aware of the health issues of eating more of it, and don’t waste your money, or harm the environment by using it in quantity. It’s something I think we’ll see more of in the future in water filters etc. – let’s see what tests show us about its efficacy. It could be good for using in gadgets.
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