Picture this: I'm getting ready for bed, washing up in the bathroom and notice black substance in the sink. My initial reaction: “Who poured paint down the sink?” But then came to the realization that my friend who was staying with me just brushed her teeth with activated charcoal. I had seen ads for charcoal toothpaste and since her teeth are gleaming white, I was tempted to try it myself. But I'd also heard since I was a little girl that charcoal is used as a poison treatment. So I wondered:  is this product just a marketing tool to get customers to buy it because of its unique color? Or is charcoal actually good for you? Activated charcoal is showing up in everything from oral products to icecreams and being touted as a health-boosting natural mineral. So I dug deeper: The research about it is disturbing, and the more I read, the more I was inclined to stay away.

Getty Images

Activated charcoal was once considered “the universal antidote,” for ailments as varied as digestive disorders and toxins to something you give a child who has ingested a poison like detergent. In fact, it actually does work to trap toxins and chemicals in the body by binding to molecules so they can be readily flush out of your system safely.

Scientists have studied the benefits of charcoal in patients who have overdosed on pills and poisons and the outcome is varied depending on the timing, the poison levels, and the individuals' tolerance to the treatment, but all in all they conclude charcoal should be an option in these extreme emergencies. 

But on the other hand, New York City passed a law in 2018 that bans activated charcoal as an ingredient in foods. It forced a popular NYC restaurant, Morganstern's ice cream parlor, to remove flavors containing charcoal from the menu. But if it's made of natural ingredients like peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, or petroleum, how bad can it be. So we decided to find out: What's the truth?

Getty Images

What is activated charcoal and where can I buy it?

Activated charcoal is a black powder derived from carbon-rich materials burned at high temperatures, including wood, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, coal, olive pits, or sawdust (in varied combinations). The most common form is coconut shells, also known as coconut ash. This black powder is found in a variety of products like baking, toothpaste, dietary supplements, skin care products, beverages, and more new products by the day.

What makes charcoal "activated" is the heating process, which changes the internal structure, reduces the size of the pores, and increases the surface area. (This is not to be confused with charcoal briquettes which are used for grilling your veggie burgers; if you or a child consumes those, you should immediately call 911, since that particular type is highly toxic.)

Activated Charcoal Can Be Used as an Emergency Poison Treatment

Activated charcoal (AC) can be used to remove an ingested toxin or overdose of medicine from the stomach to minimize absorption. The toxins get trapped in the tiny pores of the charcoal's surface and can't get absorbed into the lining of the stomach. A study in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, reported how effective activated charcoal is when faced with an emergency due to poisoning or overdose.

However, results from the study explain that activated charcoal is not effective with all poisings and overdoses. Some alcohols, metal, iron, potassium, acid, and other harmful substances are not be treated effectively by taking activated charcoal. In fact, some doctors do not use AC for emergency purposes and the AC can actually cause harm so it's not always the right choice.

Charcoal in toothpaste to whiten teeth is controversial, according to studies

Researchers compared the whitening performance of toothpaste with different technologies: Activated charcoal, versus blue covarine, or hydrogen peroxide, or microbeads or optimized abrasives in a 2019 study.

The results concluded that only blue covarine and the mircrobeads showed whitening performance after the first use. The greatest whitening performance after continuous use was obtained by the [blue covarine, followed by the hydrogen peroxide and the and the microbeads. So the charcoal didn't make the top three.

In an earlier review of 13 studies of tooth whitening products that included raw charcoal or soot, the authors could not find enough evidence to conclude that charcoal helped whiten teeth. The review study included: "Dental clinicians should advise their patients to be cautious when using charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices with unproven claims of efficacy and safety."

Is Activated Charcoal Actually Bad For You?

It's fair to conclude that AC used in extreme emergencies like accidental poisoning can be effective, but after reviewing studies, evidence shows that there are better options for whitening your teeth. In addition, there is not enough information that shows AC is good or bad for your digestive health. However, taking AC could negate the drugs that you take and need for medical reasons. So if you accidentally take too much aspirin, for instance, AC can help. But if your doctor wants you on medication it could bind to that molecule and render it neutral. In one study researchers found that consuming activated charcoal enhances the elimination of medications such as aspirin, as well as the following: Carbamazepine, dapsone, dextropropoxyphene, cardiac glycosides, meprobamate, phenobarbitone, phenytoin, and theophylline. So if you need to be on those drugs talk to your doctor before using any toothpaste or other product that allows you to ingest AC.

Limited Doses of AC Won't Hurt You but NYC Orders It Removed from the Menu

It's no secret that activated charcoal has its picturesque moments on Instagram (which is why we at The Beet were so drawn to a cool black soft serve vegan ice cream with AC in the recipe). The pitch-black coloring makes for a quick double-tap on any photo. But, scientists are skeptical about cafes and restaurants who sell AC croissants, "goth lattes," midnight ice cream, black burger buns, and more instagrammable foods.

New Yorkers will not be seen walking around sipping on black lattes any time soon due to the NYC Department of Health's ban. Back in 2018, Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream was forced to remove its Coconut Ash flavor from the menu, dumping $3,000 worth of the product.

“I don’t see any evidence that this is actually a question of public health safety,” owner Nick Morgenstern said at the time. “I would challenge someone to identify the public health safety risk of that ingredient.”

The upshot is that if you're on meds and eat AC it could negate the efficacy of those drugs, but for anyone who loves the look of a pitch-black cone we are not going to stop you from the occasional licks. Just know that charcoal may not restore your teeth to pearly white. For that, find a product with microbeads like Oral B's 3DWhite. Charcoal is still best used for grilling.