How safe is activated charcoal?

ABC10's Irene Cruz talked to some experts to verify the safety and effectiveness of activated charcoal.

It’s one of the biggest beauty trends making rounds on the internet.

People claim activated charcoal can whiten their teeth, clear up their skin, and even help detox. But every time a new trend pops up, we wonder – do any of the people encouraging it actually know what they’re talking about? Is it safe? Is it effective?

Some products featuring activated charcoal include face wipes, nose strips, and deodorant. A number of consumers buy activated charcoal in a jar or in a pill form.

You can also find activated charcoal in food. A spot called Frankie and Jo’s in Seattle makes charcoal ice cream. Olivella’s, a restaurant in New Jersey, puts it in their pizza, pasta, and mozzarella.

“Activated charcoal in the ER is used for overdoses when someone comes in overdosing on a very specific medication,” Erin Lavin, UC Medical Center clinical dietitian, said. “Charcoal is essentially a sponge.”

The product is porous and is used to trap toxins, but what happens if you ingest it without medical guidance?

"Charcoal affects each body differently," Lavin said. "And about twenty percent of people who take it end up throwing up. I think ingesting charcoal is generally recognized as safe. Other than those side effects -- you know it can make your poop black, it can make you vomit, it can make you constipated. But other than those, there's no major life threatening side effect of taking charcoal orally."

Lavin added that your tolerance determines your body’s reaction. Usually what you buy at the store is a hundred times more than what’s given in the ER. She suggests not going over the dosage recommended by the manufacturer of the product.

Activated charcoal has not been approved by the FDA. A quick visit to the FDA's website shows research on safety and effectiveness is limited and inconsistent.

And, can it really whiten our teeth? Dr. Upen Patel, D.D.S., has several concerns about the product. One, it hasn’t been evaluated by the American Dental Association for long term use. He's also worried about erosion of the enamel, abrasiveness, gums, and tissue.

"Because of how small those particles are, they can get stuck in your gums and in small cracks in your teeth, so you can have these little black lines in your gums and your teeth you can't get out,” Lavin said.

In other cases, some people on YouTube are getting millions of hits on videos showing them mixing charcoal with Elmer’s glue.

"With a face mask, it has a tendency to stick on your skin aggressively, so those people on Youtube you see them ripping their skin off, which can be harmful to you," Lavin said.

There are rumors that it can get rid of a hangover as well.

"Charcoal can only work on your stomach so it won't help you with a hangover," Lavin said. "It's not going to leech anything out of your blood. It will just work in your stomach and not do anything for you other than maybe make you feel better than you are."

And as for detoxing?

"It really can't absorb anything out of your blood or out of your lymph, it's really limited to what you're eating," Lavin added "And it's really limited to certain compounds. So it can't really help you detox."

The bottom line, according to Lavin, Dr. Patel, and Consumer Reports, it might not cause major harm, but there’s also not enough published research to prove activated charcoal works as well as many internet folks say it does.

© 2017 KXTV-TV


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