What’s the Deal with Activated Charcoal?


If you’ve been seeing activated charcoal around in unusual places, like gut shots, face masks, body soap, deodorants—even lemonades and ice creams!—you may want to know why.

Activated charcoal has been used for more than 10,000 years by all types of healers—from Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic practitioners to Western medicine doctors. Historically, activated charcoal has been used in medicine and beauty products.

But what is activated charcoal, exactly?

Unlike regular charcoal, which is a known carcinogen, activated charcoal is medicinal. Activated charcoal is the byproduct of slowly burnt wood, peat, or coconut shells treated with oxygen. This process renders it highly porous and non-polar, allowing it to adsorb (bind to, as opposed to absorb, which means to soak up) hydrophobic toxins and odors from gases or liquids up to 1,000 times its weight.

Another fun fact: Just two grams of activated charcoal powder (4 capsules) has about the same surface area as a football field!

So, how does activated charcoal work? 

Activated charcoal works by trapping toxins and chemicals in its millions of tiny pores, allowing them to be flushed out so your body doesn’t reabsorb them. This makes it a wonderful substance for general and acute detoxification. 

Keep the following in mind when working with activated charcoal:

  • YOU MUST DRINK 12–16 glasses of water per day. Activated charcoal can cause dehydration if you don't drink adequate amounts of water in tandem. This also helps to quickly flush out toxins and helps prevents constipation some folks can experience.
  • SEEK ACTIVATED CHARCOAL made from sustainable sources such as coconut shells. Another sustainable Binchotan, also known as "white charcoal," is made purely from Japanese Ubame oak, and considered the crème de la crème.
  • BEWARE OF FILLERS: Only use activated charcoal products with no fillers or artificial sweeteners added.
  • DON'T INHALE IT: This can be dangerous, resulting in a condition like black lung, so be careful if you decide to take on any DIY projects with it.
  • KEEP IT IN A SEALED CONTAINER, as activated charcoal can easily absorb the impurities in the air.
  • IT'S TYPICALLY NOT USED when petroleum, rubbing alcohol, lye, acids, or other corrosive poisons are ingested.

Let’s start trapping toxins!

There are many wonderful options available. We keep a bottle of activated charcoal in the medicine cabinet for “just in case” food poisoning.

But here are a few more of my favorite products featuring activated charcoal as a main ingredient:


Charcoal deodorant. My favorite these days is one from Schmidt’s. This mineral rich deodorant effectively neutralizes odor and absorbs wetness without any harmful aluminum, propylene glycol, or artificial fragrances. 

KOR – Black Magic with detoxifying charcoal. KOR Shots is a line of dietary supplements that come in small 1.7 oz bottles. They often have a base of juice with ginger, lemon, and apple cider vinegar. I found mine at Whole Foods.

Beautycounter Charcoal Soap. Beautycounter uses the highest quality of charcoal—Japanese Binchotan—to pull out the most oil, impurities, and dirt from skin.

Beautycounter Purifying Mask in Charcoal. For the best results, try a mask, says dermatologic surgeon Dr. Sejal Shah. “Adsorption basically acts like a magnet for dirt, oil and other impurities—but it depends on physical contact so it needs to sit on the skin to be effective.”