Healthspan August 17, 2017

Previously charcoal was for BBQ’s and had little or no other use – until now. Speak to any beauty blogger or wellness guru (Gwyneth Paltrow included) about the various benefits of charcoal and the conversation will feature charcoal face-masks all the way through to teeth whitening toothpastes. 

When this trend took hold Healthspan felt the need to investigate and so, with the help of our Medical Director Dr Sarah Brewer, we’ve put together the top five benefits of charcoal and the truth behind them.

1. Charcoal for fighting toxins

Proposed benefit

Activated charcoal – formed when manufacturers heat regular charcoal with gas - is particularly popular with the press and is the basis of most charcoal beauty products. By activating charcoal, its surface area is increased so that, rather like a sponge, it can absorb more of the ‘toxins’ residing in your body.

The truth from Dr Sarah

The body has an excellent ability to neutralise toxins, especially in the liver, and to excrete toxins via the skin, lungs, kidneys and bowels. The phrase ‘fighting toxins’ is therefore used far too often in relation to health, but activated charcoal is sometimes helpful to support other treatments.

Activated charcoal was originally used to treat severe poisoning in hospital but is not necessarily going to get rid of toxins that are popularly believed to cause acne or other common problems. It doesn’t matter if its charcoal or green juices you’re fonder of, they might offer some health benefits but this should not be confused with ‘detox’.

2. Charcoal for whitening your teeth

Proposed benefit

People everywhere are asking ‘does charcoal toothpaste really work?’ and purchasing trendy products like Bamboo charcoal toothpaste in the hope that it’ll rid of tea and coffee stains and prove to be the ultimate tooth whitening tool.

The truth from Dr Sarah

In reality, there is no robust research evidence that activated charcoal is beneficial for teeth and the American Dental Association (ADA) is yet to approve it as an official tooth whitener . A recent review published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found reports of increased caries and enamel abrasion with the use of charcoal and stated that claims for antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and oral detoxification benefits are unproven. As some studies suggest that over-use of abrasive materials can wear down enamel - which is the very part of the teeth you’re trying to whiten these products are best avoided.

3. Charcoal for getting rid of acne

Proposed benefit

The array of charcoal skincare products on the market is remarkable. Charcoal facemasks, charcoal cleansers, charcoal facial soap; they’re all there and they’re all claiming they’ll deeply cleanse your skin, remove blackheads, help minimise large pores and relieve you of acne .

Activated charcoal is very porous, so porous that 2g of the stuff has the equivalent surface are of a large football field (mind boggling we know). This means it can draw impurities away from the skin through the process of absorption , hence its popularity with skincare brands like Clinique.

The truth from Dr Sarah

The bottom line is that, again, there is no medical proof of activated charcoal as a magical cure for acne. While it sounds plausible that activated charcoal would absorb excess oil, dirt and clear pores this has not been tested in clinical trials. Try products such as charcoal exfoliants and face masks to assess their potential benefits yourself – my teenage daughter loves them! Many charcoal face products contain other components that are better at helping with spot outbreaks than the main ingredient itself . If it works, great – but this is just as likely to result from your regular face cleansing routine as from the charcoal content.

4. Charcoal for calming insect bites

Proposed benefit

There’s a lot of people out there saying activated charcoal mixed with coconut oil as an external treatment for an insect bites or stings works a treat by helping to reduce the associated symptoms.

The truth from Dr Sarah

This one makes sense. Activated charcoal was originally used for the treatment of poison and the symptoms of insect bites and stings are the result of a tiny injection of just that – poison or other substances to which the body reacts. Anything that absorbs these from the skin is likely to help reduce symptoms.

You can buy activated charcoal patches online for the very purpose of treating insect bites and stings . In theory, they should help with the symptoms and give the sufferer some well-deserved rest-bite (groan!).

5. Charcoal to help with flatulence

Proposed benefit

If we go back to the idea that charcoal absorbs bad things in your body, it can supposedly help alleviate the symptoms of flatulence by absorbing gas from your digestive system, too.

The truth from Dr Sarah

Activated charcoal tablets are available from pharmacies to relieve symptoms of flatulence as randomised controlled trials show that it significantly improves symptoms of bloating and abdominal cramps associated with excess gaseousness. They are not suitable for everyone, especially if you are taken other medication whose absorption may be affected, so always check with a pharmacist before taking it. Other more modern medications may work better.

References:

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/healthyeating/11721347/Is-charcoal-doing-us-more-harm-than-good.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0008816/?report=details&_ga=2.243273669.1588918857.1502292857-482171755.1502292857
  3. http://www.colgate.com/en/us/oc/oral-health/cosmetic-dentistry/teeth-whitening/article/should-you-try-diy-teeth-whitening-paste-0315
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28599961
  5. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/w/natural-teeth-whitening
  6. https://beautycharcoal.com/activated-charcoal-health-benefits
  7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/11571250/Why-charcoal-could-be-the-secret-to-better-skin.html 
  8. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/beauty/charcoal-skin-benefits
  9. https://www.google.com/patents/US6660901
  10. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Flatulence/Pages/Treatment.aspx

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