Debunking activated charcoal

Does the beauty trend live up to the hype?

By Liz Bautista | Published: 21 May 2015

Activated charcoal
Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Activated charcoal might be a hot beauty trend right now, but it has in fact been in use for years. During World War I it was used in soldiers' gas masks to filter out dangerous chemicals, while it has also been used to treat water, making it odourless and tasteless. More recently, activated charcoal has being hailed as a virtual cure-all, capable of everything from reducing bloating to whitening teeth to perfecting skin. But how true are the claims? We asked the experts.

Firstly, what is activated charcoal and how is it different to regular charcoal?
Charcoal is made by burning wood, bone or other organic matter. 'Activated' charcoal is made the same way, but is heated in the presence of oxygen, which causes it to develop lots of pores. These help it to 'trap' chemicals, like a sponge, which is why it has been used as a poison antidote, although it isn't effective on all chemicals. It is availabe in tablet, powder and liquid form from health food shops.

Can activated charcoal reduce bloating?
There is very little scientific evidence that activated charcoal can reduce belly bloating or flatulence. "It does well in binding to poison or drugs, but its full ability to absorb 'gas' has not been proven. Therefore it's still too early to give a definitive conclusion on this," says dietician and nutritionist Trisha Nair. And the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) agrees. A study published in the EFSA journal concluded that a cause and effect relationship has not been established between consumption of activated charcoal and reduction of bloating.

Can activated charcoal whiten teeth?
As far as teeth whitening goes, science again provides very little to no evidence of the benefits of activated charcoal. According to Trishna, the evidence available for this claim is as flimsy as that supporting activated charcoal's effectiveness in treating a hangover or lowering cholesterol.

"We do get a lot of these myths about certain power supplements such as activated charcoal and we have the difficult job of debunking these myths because people are so easily influenced by what is currently on trend," shares dietician and nutritionist Trishna Nair. "People also tend to go into it without thinking twice about the actual research and facts about these substances just because they've seen or heard it from the media."

Is activated charcoal a miracle for your skin?
Sorry guys: it's more bad news when it comes to activated charcoal's so-called anti-ageing and skin purifying qualities: "Claims have been made about activated charcoal in beauty products, that it is able to ‘absorb’ oils to treat acne and improve one's complexion, but in actual truth the particle size of activated carbon is comparative to a boulder sitting on the pore. Therefore it does not get into the pore, and it does not work as a magnet that is able to 'pull-out' grease and chemicals stuck in pores," says Trishna.

This may not be what you want to hear about the latest health and beauty trend, but at least now you won't waste your money without doing further research. 

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