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Charcoal: why it’s not just for your summer BBQ

August 7th 2016 / Anna Hunter

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From skincare to smoothies to teeth whitening, charcoal is the latest health and beauty fascination, but what can it do for you? We smoke out the evidence…

I’m sipping on lemonade, but my brain can’t handle it. Not because it’s giving me a sugar rush (apparently it’s chock full of health benefits), but because it’s a deep, swampy black liquid that would look more at home in a horror movie than nestled away in my fridge. The sooty hue comes courtesy of activated charcoal, which consists of wood, coal, coconut husks or another substance that has been heated to a high temperature and combined with a gas or ‘activating agent’ to increase its surface area. The idea is that the activated charcoal attracts (or ‘adsorbs’- not a typo but a technical term) less than desirable substances from your system, therefore ‘purifying’ your gut, skin or teeth, depending on whether you ingest it or apply it topically.

Absolving our sins with activated charcoal may seem appealing, at least once you’ve got over the fact that it looks like it fell out an exhaust pipe, but is cleaning up our act really as simple as throwing smokey sediments at the problem, and should we be imbibing, applying or brushing our teeth with it willy nilly as the wellness crowd seems to endorse? We take a look at whether its healthy, glowing reputation is mere smoke and mirrors…

For health

In terms of detoxification, charcoal certainly has its uses and can even be prescribed on the NHS, but the circumstances are normally more severe than going on a slight health bender, as nutritional therapist Petronella Ravenshear explains:

“Activated charcoal (not the same as BBQ charcoal) has been used as a remedy for centuries to detoxify the body; the charcoal binds with the toxins which are then excreted. It’s used in many water filters for that very reason, to purify the water. And charcoal is sometimes used in hospitals as a lifesaver for acute poisoning.”

“In some circles charcoal is being embraced with the zeal that’s normally reserved for superfoods’ we have found a new darling, a heroic detoxifier. Some of us are adding a stick of it to our drinking water to purify it while others are adding it to juices or taking it as a supplement. However, if charcoal binds so readily to poisons in the body, what would prevent it from binding to our good bacteria or nutrient minerals? I feel uneasy about taking it myself or recommending it to my clients, so my advice is try it if you’re drawn to it but don’t make too much of a habit of it.”

Dietitian Carin Hume shares Petronella’s reservations:

“Activated charcoal is a potent natural treatment used to trap toxins and chemicals in the body, allowing them to be flushed out so the body doesn’t reabsorb them. It has a long history of being used to reduce the absorption of drugs and other poisons after they’ve been ingested, but before they are absorbed into the bloodstream.”

“This sounds very attractive, but I’d pause before rushing out to buy some! It’s certainly a little optimistic to think that we should be adding it to all kinds of healthy beverages to ensure we are riding our bodies of harmful toxins, although there may be times when we may benefit from taking it. There is although, to my knowledge, no scientific evidence to suggest that we may benefit from taking it daily. As with many supplements, they have their place and time, but aren’t universally healthy or beneficial for all, and in many instances may actually be harmful - Vitamin E and iron being just two examples of supplements which may be harmful for some.”

“An appropriate way to use charcoal may be when one has to take some kind of antimicrobial treatment, for example a treatment for a fungal overgrowth. Charcoal binds to the fungal cell wall components that would be killed in an antifungal treatment protocol, and then it carries them out of the body. It may also be useful if someone has diarrhoea that’s not typical for the individual.”

“As for other consumption, I’m not so sure it’s best used in the context where you eat something that you wouldn’t normally eat, and so the idea of ‘I take this to deal with that’ - I just don’t believe that is how it works. The idea of eating a ‘clean’ and pure diet has perhaps gone a little too far. I think that, as humans, if we’re healthy, even if we’re not 100% of the time eating a healthy or ‘clean’ diet, we have a certain resilience and tolerance for a certain intake of foods which aren’t perhaps the healthiest. Of course, in the case of someone who has coeliac disease, the individual should aim to follow a gluten-free diet 100% of the time, so that’s where it’s a little different. There are rumours that activated charcoal can be used to take the edge off of a hangover too, but I’m not so convinced that it’s going to make much difference as alcohol is absorbed rapidly from the gut.”

“With regards to source of activated charcoal, I can’t claim to have studied the scientific literature, but I tend to favour charcoal made from coconut as I would like to believe that it’s a more pure source.”

“It is worth noting that activated charcoal can interfere with the absorption of nutrients and supplements, so it should not be taken with other supplements. More importantly it can also interfere with the absorption of prescription medications.”

If you do want to dabble in the black stuff, for motivations other than poisoning obviously, Botanic Lab Isotonic, £60 for a box of 8 or on sale individually at selected retailers, tastes zingy and refreshing while also packing in a hit of vitamin C, although whether you’ll absorb it or not is chancy thanks to the molecule mop that is activated charcoal. Another way by which to road test its cleansing capacity is to whack a stick of it in your water, or let someone else do it for you by way of Black + Blum Eau Good Water Filter Bottle, £14.95. You’ll see that this sooty business isn’t particularly cheap.

botanic-lab-refuel-new-web-31481513-6a19-40f3-aae0-fb7d5428c22c-large.jpgFor less virtuous but possibly more fun ways in which to sample charcoal’s unique tang and slightly gritty texture, it’s worth noting that its turning up in everything from burger buns to pizza bases these days. I tried a a charcoal bread roll in the suitably volcanic Pompeii last summer, and it was definitely moreish, although no more so than your average fresh from the oven offering. If it ain’t broke…

Food aside, activated charcoal also has quite a niche benefit. I’ll let Petronella expand on that…

“I was recently cheered by coming across Hans-Christian Pommergaard, a scientist at Copenhagen University Hospital. He wrote a paper called “Flatulence on airplanes: just let it go”, in which he recommended that activated charcoal should be embedded in aeroplane seats to neutralise the smell from windy travellers. He stated: ‘We conclude that the use of active charcoal on airlines may improve flight comfort for all passengers’, and he went on to suggest that it could also be used to impregnate trousers for the same effect. N Z Med J. 2013 Feb 15;126(1369):68-74

Reassuring to know that the buzz around charcoal isn’t all hot air.

For teeth

Counterintuitive as it seems, activated charcoal has long been used as a teeth whitener, and it has notably been cropping up in more and more toothpastes on the market of late, perhaps due to the current preoccupation with ‘natural’ health. The fact that it turns your sink grey aside, is there any merit in its reputation as a stain magnet? Dentist and co-founder of WhiteWash Laboratories Dr Matthew Lloyd thinks that charcoal’s brightening action could all be an illusion:

“The only thing that activated charcoal is scientifically proven to do is prevent poisoning. However, its uses have now been stretched far and wide, including as a whitening ingredient in toothpaste.”

“That said, I would err on the side of caution as it’s basically an abrasive used to polish away stains, and a relatively new one at that, so we are unsure about how corrosive it is, therefore we can’t know the damage it could be doing to enamel. For people prone to sensitivity it could be even more harmful and cause a lot of discomfort.”

“You've also got to question if there is a true whitening effect or if teeth just look whiter because your teeth are covered in black and then are suddenly white when the paste is washed away.”

“The most important thing to remember is that activated charcoal itself is not a dental hygiene product, so you will need to use it in conjunction with a full floss-wash-brush regime.”

If you’re keen to see what all the fuss is about regardless, opt for a fluoride packed toothpaste over neat charcoal powder or a homemade paste. Beverly Hills Formula Perfect White Black Sensitive Toothpaste, £4.99, has been formulated with touchy teeth in mind, helping to neutralise acid and prevent plaque buildup as a normal toothpaste would, with the addition of activated charcoal to take care of whitening. I’m testing it out and time will tell whether my teeth go ‘up’ a shade, but I’m telling myself that it’s preferable to bleaching, and also it’s quite enjoyable to freak my boyfriend out via foaming black mouth. Juvenile I know.

perfect-white-sensitive-100ml-tube.jpgFor skin

This is the department where the majority of us are most at home with the grime purging effects of charcoal. From sleepover mud masks to impurity leaching pore strips, most of us have been there in terms of exploring charcoal’s puritanical cleansing capacity. The good news is, in the case of skincare, charcoal’s reputation as a glow giver is well founded, as cosmetics industry expert Paula Begoun confirms:

“One teaspoon of activated charcoal has a surface area of more than 10,000 square feet, which gives charcoal unique absorbent properties as a skincare ingredient. It can also be used to disinfect wounds.”

In case you don’t have any pore strips hanging around from 80s slumber parties, here’s a rundown of the freshest charcoal based launches to hit the scene recently. If you love to feel ‘clean’ but don’t want to scrub yourself raw, they’re just the tonic.

Clinique City Block Purifying™ Charcoal Cleansing Gel, £18

city-block-purifying-charcoal-cleansing-gel-icon.jpgWith a mission statement of combatting the harmful dermatological effects of pollution, chiefly by ensuring that damaging particles are dissolved and swept away effectively, this inky cleansing gel taps into the contemporary fixations with both charcoal and shirking environmental pollutants. It’s hard to tell on the pollution elimination front, but the gel tackles makeup, sebum and any other residue beautifully, leaving skin feeling smooth and thoroughly de-gunked. If ten-step cleansing regimes get your goat, this will sweep the board clean in one fell swoop.

Erno Laszlo Detoxifying Cleansing Oil (coming soon) and Sea Mud Deep Cleansing Bar, £39

erno-laszlo.jpgIf you prefer the muck melting action of an oil, this black-to-grey option will prove satisfying. Given that Dr Laszlo was the inventor of the ‘double cleanse’, it makes sense to lather up with the iconic charcoal based cleansing bar after you’re done with your initial going over. Use the soft edges of the bar for circulation boosting massage, while charcoal powder takes care of any daily debris. Added glycerin ensures that skin doesn’t feel stripped post-cleanse.

BareMinerals Dirty Detox™ Skin Glowing and Refining Mud Mask, £32, launches September

dirtydetox-mudmask-comp.jpgA skin treatment that could moonlight as khaki army camouflage, this exfoliating, clarifying mask blends an international scope of clays (Moroccan, French, Brazilian and Spanish) with Japanese white charcoal for additional impurity absorbing clout. The ‘leave on’ mask element gives the deep cleansing ingredients all the more time and opportunity to carry out their unclogging duties, and the additional black washcloth and smoothing application brush is a nice touch if you don’t want to stain your grouting/ fingernails, although at £14 I wouldn’t deem them ‘essentials’, as they’ve been anointed.

Origins Clear Improvement™ Purifying Charcoal Body Wash, £19

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With a bamboo charcoal base, this frothy black body wash provides a tingly cool down that’s a balm post workout/ if the weather’s muggy. Refreshing without giving you the heebie jeebies, it also makes for a fun foam party if getting to Ibiza is a stretch. All of this foaming would make me wary of using this if I was going through an eczema outbreak, however, so while this is marketed at dry skin, I’d tread a little carefully if you’re suffer with sensitivity. Otherwise, party on, safe in the knowledge that the charcoal particles suspended within the gel are nuking sweat, sand and bacteria.

Oribe The Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo, £38

the-cleanse-clarifying-shampoo-1000x1000.jpgBefore you balk at the price of a pile of what could be viewed as a pile of ash, hear me out. This is the best shampoo I have ever used. It spurts out the very elegant can as a grey foam (go easy), working into light and creamy suds, reviving oily, lank or product saturated roots as soon as it’s applied. Enriched with the kind of exfoliators that are normally at home in the skincare sector, it leaves the scalp feeling light and free (so free), while my long, thin lengths dried to a shiny, bouncy finish. Given that I generally wave a hairdryer about for circa ten minutes and coax hair into some sort of shape using only my fingers, the resulting style post-shampoo was nothing short of miraculous. If you live in a hard water area, are a gym bunny or can feel build up creeping up on you, this volcanic ash based cleanser could well be worth the spend. I’ll be saving it for desperate times.

Love discovering how ‘superfoods’ work, or um, don’t? You might appreciate the following features on kale and turmeric

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