Welcome to Wellness Lies, our list of the most pervasive misfires in the effort to feel and look better. We asked the experts and consulted the best science on all the questions you have about each of these wellness fads. Read the whole list and share with your most misinformed friends and family members.
Black is the new black, at least when it comes to pizza, ice cream, toothpastes, and all the other “activated charcoal” products that have lately flooded the marketplace—and probably your Instagram feed. Along with their arresting looks, these products are often pitched as potent detoxifiers capable of scrubbing your gut and blood of harmful agents.
A quick primer: Charcoal is basically the carbon left over when all the water and other defining components are heated out of organic substances. Charcoal is usually made from coconut shells, peat, or wood, and it’s naturally very porous, says David Juurlink, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Toronto. (You can see this when you drizzle lighter fluid on charcoal; the liquid is sucked right up.)
“Activated charcoal” is charcoal that has undergone further treatment with high temperatures and gases to purify and pulverize it, and to maximize its sponge-like attributes, Juurlink explains. “A single gram of activated charcoal has a surface area of several thousand square yards, and it has an important role in clinical medicine,” he says. That role: hoovering up the contents of someone’s stomach if they’ve ingested poison or lethal quantities of a drug.
“If given to a patient within an hour or two of an overdose, activated charcoal binds to the drug in the person’s stomach and prevents it from being absorbed into the bloodstream,” Juurlink says. He’s published research outlining the usefulness of activated charcoal as an overdose intervention, and his findings show that its benefits dissipate rapidly. If taken 30 minutes after an overdose, activated charcoal “adsorbs” (traps) roughly 50 percent of the drug. By the two-hour mark, it adsorbs just 16.5 percent.
While activated charcoal can be a life-saver in this clinical situation, it also carries risks. “It’s very difficult to pass through the GI system, so it can cause very serious constipation,” says Robert Weber, an associate professor of pharmacy at Ohio State University. “In a clinical setting, if we put it in a person’s stomach we also pump it back out.”
So it’s true that activated charcoal has incredible binding capabilities. (It’s also used in charcoal water filters, where it can remove chemicals, organic pollutants, and other unwanted impurities.) But when asked if eating foods infused with activated charcoal could provide detoxification benefits, neither Juurlink nor Weber mince words.
“It is absolute and unmitigated gimmickry,” Juurlink says. “There is nothing to be gained by buying it and taking it.” He points out that, in an ER setting, patients need to take a heavy dose of activated charcoal to effectively clear their stomach of its harmful contents. “The powders or tablets I’ve seen in drug stores have 250 or 500 milligrams of activated charcoal, but in a medical setting we use 50 grams—sometimes 100,” he says.
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“There’s no validity to it,” Weber says of activated charcoal’s purported detoxification benefits. “It doesn’t circulate in the bloodstream, and it only acts on the contents of the stomach or gut before they’re absorbed.” Unless you’ve just swallowed something harmful, the charcoal won’t do anything for you.
On the other hand, activated charcoal could theoretically interfere with your body’s absorption of your prescription meds, Juurlink says. But he doesn’t consider this a serious concern—mostly because you’d have to take a clinically meaningful dose of charcoal around the same time you take your drugs, and it would have to be the type of medication where missing a single dose would have some effect on you. But still.
Finally, regarding activated charcoal’s ability to whiten teeth, a 2017 review in the Journal of the American Dental Association found no evidence that these toothpastes work, and that using them could lead to cavities and tooth decay. “I would think they would also stain your teeth black if you didn’t rinse really well or brush your teeth again after using them,” Weber says.
To sum all this up, activated charcoal may look cool. And most products probably don’t contain enough of the stuff to hurt you. But if you’re spending money in the hopes of “detoxifying” your body, you’re wasting your money.
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