Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 21, 2019

What Is Activated Charcoal?

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You can find activated charcoal in all sorts of places. From food and toothpaste, to supplements and personal care items, this jet-black powder looks like what you use on a backyard grill, but it isn’t the same. It’s made from natural ingredients like coal, coconut shells, or wood pulp, and broken down into tiny pieces.

How It Works

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The charcoal is “activated” when it’s heated to a very high temperature. This changes its structure. Heating gives the fine carbon powder a larger surface area, which makes it more porous. This lets the charcoal collect toxins, chemicals, and other unwanted materials, like smells from stinky feet and odors in the fridge.

Poisoning and Drug Overdoses

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Activated charcoal can help in some emergency poisonings or drug overdoses. If you get it into your system within an hour, it can trap some of the toxins and keep your body from absorbing them. An ER doctor might give it to you through a feeding tube, which goes down your throat and into your stomach. But it isn’t a cure-all. Charcoal doesn’t seem to help clear acid, iron, lithium, alcohols, alkali, or toxins in gasoline from the body.

Treating Gas and Indigestion

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Some studies show that activated charcoal can help with gas and indigestion. But other studies disagree. A mix of charcoal and the gas-relieving drug simethicone seems to help ease pain, gas, and bloating. But activated charcoal can also cause vomiting, so for some people, it could make an upset stomach worse.

Lowering Cholesterol

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You might try mixing charcoal powder in food -- like smoothies or baked goods -- in hopes of dropping your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Some research shows that activated charcoal can keep your body from absorbing cholesterol. But study results are mixed on whether taking activated charcoal can lower your cholesterol levels.

Preventing Hangovers

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Sometimes you’ll find activated charcoal mixed into a cocktail. Yet, it’s also in some hangover remedies. But it doesn’t seem to absorb alcohol very well. Some research shows that drinking it at the same time as alcohol might lower blood alcohol levels somewhat. But that wouldn’t help the next morning.

Whitening Teeth

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Some people claim that brushing with activated charcoal helps whiten their teeth. But there are no published studies to back up this natural whitening claim. Instead, the fine black powder might settle in tiny cracks in teeth. That would make your teeth look darker instead of lighter.

During Pregnancy

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Scientists have studied activated charcoal to see if it helps with a condition during pregnancy called cholestasis. If you have this liver problem, bile doesn’t flow as it should. The most common side effect is serious itching. The goal is to find out if charcoal would bind to the bile acids to help get rid of them. We’ll need more research to know if it works.

Skin Infections and Acne

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Some research shows that using activated charcoal in bandages can help heal certain leg ulcers. It might also help stop the smells that come from infections. Other studies have had mixed results on whether charcoal can help with ulcers or bedsores. Some skin creams and washes with activated charcoal promise to clear up acne. But there’s little science to back up those claims.

Controlling Body Odor

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You can often find activated charcoal mixed into soaps and deodorants to help soak up smells. It’s also common in shoe inserts that claim to be able to do away with stinky feet. Some people even take it by mouth in hopes that it will stop body odor. But there are few studies that say it works.

Water Filtering

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Water filters often have a layer of activated charcoal. It can help remove chlorine, heavy metals, and other substances from tap water. In the same way charcoal removes those unwanted items, it might be able to absorb smells in the refrigerator or from the air.

Kidney Function

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Activated charcoal may help the kidneys work better by cutting the amount of waste that they have to filter. It might be especially helpful for people who have kidney disease.

Is Activated Charcoal Safe?

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Activated charcoal is likely safe for most people if you only use it for a short time. There are some possible side effects, like constipation. In rare cases, it can cause blockages and dehydration. It also can stop your body from absorbing some drugs. Check with your doctor before starting it if you’re taking medicine.

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