Maybe you've spotted it at the health food store or in the skincare aisle.
Or maybe you've scrolled past someone on Instagram wearing a black face mask or holding a murky-looking black drink.
Activated charcoal—yes, charcoal—has become one of the hottest ingredients for beauty and wellness.
But you don't need to splurge on pricey charcoal-infused products or juices to reap its benefits. Long before it went mainstream, I was actually taking activated charcoal orally as a home detoxification remedy. Does it work? Yes!
As long as you use it correctly, activated charcoal powders are a safe, affordable and effective way to eliminate toxins. That's because they mop up substances that can not only harm your health, but also lead to skin problems such as acne, dehydration, inflammation and even aging.
Intrigued? Here's what you need to know:
What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a black powder that has no taste or odour. It is a form of charcoal (usually derived from wood, peat or coconut shells) that has been heated in order to increase its ability to absorb things.
In fact, it is so effective at grabbing and binding substances such as alcohol, drugs and poisons that it has been used for many years in hospitals as an alternative to stomach pumping.
Since it doesn't get absorbed by the body, activated charcoal will help carry out toxins before they can reach the bloodstream. You just need to consume it while the compounds are still in your stomach.
As for its safety, Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director for Pittsburgh Poison Center and assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, thinks even a daily dose of activated charcoal has minimal risk (although I don't suggest using it as often as that).
When to Use Activated Charcoal
Most of the time, our bodies are capable of eliminating toxins on their own. But according to Dr. Jeffrey A. Morrison, it's not a bad idea to take activated charcoal after a night of heavy drinking or a fried-food binge.
Here's when I would consider using it:
1. When You Drink Alcohol
If you're anything like me, just a glass or two of wine can leave your skin looking dull and dehydrated. It can even lead to pimples that take days to repair.
When I consume activated charcoal and water within a few hours of drinking alcohol, I notice that my skin looks MUCH better in the morning, compared to just having water alone. It's not nearly as dry and lifeless, and I'm far less likely to get a breakout.
Bonus tip: I've found that activated charcoal dramatically lessens hangover symptoms, too!
2. When You Eat Problem Foods
For many people, certain foods—such as junk foods, oily foods or starchy foods—can trigger acne flare-ups, rashes, inflammation and other skin issues.
Enter activated charcoal. It helps mop up bacterial endotoxin, which are toxins made by gut bacteria that increase in population whenever you eat something you don't digest properly or that irritates the intestine. Endotoxin also increase when you eat fermentable carbohydrates, because they provide food for the bacteria.
Excess endotoxin can lead to elevated estrogen and cortisol, which have many negative, aging effects for your skin—and body. According to Ray Peat, PhD: "Bacterial endotoxin is usually the basic problem causing hormone imbalance, by being a chronic burden for the liver, keeping it from storing enough sugar to process thyroid and the other hormones effectively."
You definitely want to take measures to avoid any endotoxin triggers in your daily diet—but when that's not possible, activated charcoal can come in handy. I rely on it whenever I have to eat restaurant meals, starches, certain preservatives and/or PUFA-heavy foods, which inevitably manifest on my face as breakouts. Similar to an antibiotic, the activated charcoal helps keep my skin calm and clear by stopping the bacterial and hormonal aftermath.
3. When You're Getting Sick
Although this one is perhaps less specific to skin, a third use for activated charcoal is when you feel like you're coming down with a cold or flu.
This study notes that our bodies treat inflammatory bacteria—a.k.a. endotoxin—as an infection, and mount an immune system response that produces fever and headache. Ray Peat, PhD, explains: "It is reasonable to think that some of the symptoms of 'the flu' are produced by absorbed bowel toxins."
So activated charcoal is definitely worth a shot. I've certainly had great success taking a larger dose of it at the first sign of symptoms. Many times, it has prevented me from getting sick at all!
How to Take Activated Charcoal
Ready to get started with activated charcoal? Keep these tips in mind:
- Only use it intermittently. Activated charcoal is actually so absorbent that it binds to not only toxins but also nutrients. So if you're using it on a continuous basis, it could leave you deficient in essential vitamins and minerals.
- Don't take it with medicines or supplements. It can render these substances ineffective, so take them at least two hours away from the activated charcoal.
- Take it as soon as possible after ingesting the toxin. Whether you need to mop up alcohol or bacteria from an irritating food, the sooner you consume the activated charcoal, the more effective it will be.
- Always take it with water or juice. Activated charcoal can be dehydrating, so you'll want to have a big glass of water or juice along with it. Note: As you can see in the photo above, fine powders mix well with water, but granular powders will settle to the bottom. So drink fast, or use a spoon to keep it mixed.
- Take the right dose. Although Dr. Andrew Weil suggests a dosage of 1 oz. for adults, I use much less than that—approximately 1 tsp of powder stirred into water. (This is equivalent to about four capsules.)
- Rinse your mouth after. The loose, fine powder form of activated charcoal can blacken your lips and smile, so rinse well with water after drinking it. Granulated powder won't have the same effect, although it can get stuck in your teeth!
The Best Activated Charcoal Products
It's VERY important to use a high-quality activated charcoal of pharmaceutical grade.
There are three types available:
Fine powder is the most "active" form of activated charcoal, due to its increased surface area. However, it can be messy and there are concerns about persorption into the bloodstream. I reserve it for acute issues only (like the rare occasions that I have more than one drink).
Granular powder is a larger particle size of activated charcoal, which isn't as messy as the fine powder, and is likely a bit safer for long-term use. This is what I take most of the time.
Capsules contain the fine powder form of activated charcoal, but you don't have to worry about dealing with the messy residue. Just make sure to look for a brand without additives.
It may be trendy right now, but activated charcoal is a fantastic tool to keep in your beauty and wellness arsenal.
It's especially relevant if, like me, you have a history of alcohol or certain foods causing problems with your skin. I always felt that my complexion looked worse the day after eating out or (duh) having a few glasses of wine. Now I know it's because of these toxins, bad gut bacteria and the resulting hormonal imbalances.
As the saying goes, prevention is the best medicine. If you can't avoid an offending substance completely, then your next best bet is to mop it up with the charcoal. If you remember to take it as soon as possible after ingesting the toxin, it can ward off many of the issues you'd normally spend hours or even days trying to treat.
I'd love to hear if this remedy works for you!
Have you tried activated charcoal?
What results have you noticed with your skin—or body?