Used to be charcoal was the stuff you tossed under your grill for a barbecue. But lately, people are drinking it, bathing with it, and even spreading it on their faces.
Health companies are packaging and selling charcoal in various forms: supplements, soaps, juices, skin products, and even toothbrushes. The claims: This porous substance draws toxins away from your organs (if ingested) or skin (if applied).
What the wellness industry is using is "activated charcoal," or carbon that's derived from burning wood, peat, or coconut shells and then treated with oxygen. The result is a substance that is adept at latching on to various chemicals and drugs — a reason that it has long been used in medicine as emergency poisons control and for overdoses.
There are dozens of studies supporting the use of charcoal in emergency poisoning situations, says Paul M. Wax, MD, executive director of the American College of Clinical Toxicology. "It's pretty inert, and it does bind up a large number of chemicals and pharmaceuticals," he says.
But using it as a daily supplement — as a growing number of wellness fans are — isn't exactly supported by science.
"Frankly, I'm somewhat skeptical," Wax says. "The amounts we use in medicine are very large, 25 to 50 grams. I can't imagine there would be any benefit to taking it in very small doses as a supplement." (Most supplements contain less than a gram of activated charcoal.) Furthermore, it only works in the gut, so it won't detox your liver or pull toxins out of your fat cells.
Another concern, Wax says, is that when you mix activated charcoal with juice or your daily vitamins or medications, it binds to the juice and meds instead of the toxins in your gut. "Charcoal is not palatable. When we have to give doses to young children, it's very difficult. We'd like to mix it with juice, but doing so reduces the efficacy."
Still, Wax says he wouldn't stop someone from downing an activated-charcoal smoothie or using a bar of soap with the stuff. "I don't think there's much of a downside. It's not toxic." Just don't expect a weird gray juice to cure your hangover.