Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Written by Jessica Caporuscio, Pharm.D.
Recently, using activated charcoal to detoxify the body has become a trend. People may consume activated charcoal after overindulging with food or alcohol in an effort to remove toxins from the body.
However, activated charcoal is only effective against certain toxins in certain circumstances.
In this article, we describe how activated charcoal works and its uses. We also provide information about the risks, including possible adverse effects, of an activated charcoal detox.
What is an activated charcoal detox?
Doctors sometimes use activated charcoal if people have ingested certain poisons. The charcoal binds to the poison in the upper digestive tract, preventing the gut from absorbing it.
Charcoal comes from burning carbon-rich material, such as wood, to produce a fine, black substance.
Manufacturers then treat the charcoal to make it more porous. Increasing its surface area in this way allows more substances to bind to it. This treatment is what makes the charcoal “activated.”
The next stage of manufacturing involves making the powder into a beverage.
Activated charcoal can only bind to certain substances. For this reason, it can only help prevent the effects of specific poisons.
Other uses for activated charcoal include:
- protecting against harmful organic vapors in workplaces
- removing heavy metals from drinking water
- removing excess phosphorus from the blood of people who have chronic kidney disease
Some over-the-counter activated charcoal products claim to support general detoxification of the body. However, no scientific evidence currently supports these claims.
Does activated charcoal work?
The different uses of activated charcoal are outlined below, along with information about their effectiveness.
Activated charcoal can prevent the body from absorbing toxic substances that bind to this type of charcoal.
If a person ingests one of these specific toxins, they must receive activated charcoal treatment within 1 hour for it to work. After this time, the substance will have left the stomach, and the treatment will be ineffective.
However, some substances move through the digestive tract more slowly than others, and a doctor may decide to administer activated charcoal beyond the typical 1-hour window. In this case, the person will receive a single dose.
The right amount of activated charcoal depends on the amount of poison that the person has swallowed. The initial dose of charcoal may be 40 times the amount of the poison ingested.
Another strategy involves administering a dose of 1 gram of activated charcoal per kilogram of bodyweight. The doctor may choose this option if they are unsure how much poison the person has ingested.
In some cases, the doctor may prescribe multiple doses of activated charcoal. This can help treat life threatening poisonings that result from ingesting:
- valproic acid
Certain substances do not bind to activated charcoal. As a result, charcoal will not help combat the toxic effects of these substances, which include:
- some metals, such as salts of iron and lithium
- hydrocarbons, such as gasoline and paint thinners
Also, activated charcoal cannot eliminate the following substances:
- electrolytes, such as magnesium, potassium, and sodium
- very acidic or very alkaline substances, which are sometimes called “caustic”
Removing heavy metals from drinking water
Heavy metals, such as lead, nickel, and chromium, can be harmful to humans, even in very small amounts.
A 2014 study tested whether activated carbon could remove heavy metals from drinking water.
The researchers found that activated carbon removed, for example, 90% of nickel from drinking water. However, it was less effective than a combined water treatment of activated carbon and silica.
Protection against organic vapors
Certain products give off vapors that are damaging to health. Examples include:
In workplaces that use or produce these products, employees have a risk of inhaling these toxic vapors.
Workplaces often require at risk staff to wear respirators containing activated charcoal cartridges. The cartridges filter out the airborne toxins so that the person does not inhale them.
Removing phosphorus from the blood
When a person has chronic kidney disease, their kidneys are less able to remove excess phosphorus from their blood. This can result in various complications, particularly cardiovascular disease.
In 2019, researchers investigated whether oral activated charcoal could remove phosphorus from the blood of people with kidney disease.
One group of participants with this disease received activated charcoal, while two similar groups received other phosphorus-binding substances.
The researchers found that the participants who had taken activated charcoal showed significantly delayed increases in phosphorus levels, which could improve health in people with kidney disease.
Risks and side effects
Many people do not enjoy the taste or texture of activated charcoal drinks. Some even vomit after swallowing this substance.
Experts report that some people aspirate their vomit after drinking activated charcoal. Aspiration, in this case, involves inhaling vomit into the lungs. This can lead to an infection called aspiration pneumonia.
Also, large or repeated doses of activated charcoal can cause a blockage in a person’s digestive tract.
Because of these dangers, doctors will only give people activated charcoal if the benefits outweigh the risks.
The bottom line
Experts do not recommend activated charcoal detoxes for general use. Unless the levels of toxins are high, the body is typically able to detoxify itself.
Activated charcoal is only effective against certain toxins in certain circumstances.
Doctors use it to remove specific poisons from the body shortly after ingestion. Also, the treatment is only effective while the toxins remain in the upper digestive tract.
In addition, activated charcoal can remove some toxins from the air and water, and doctors have used it to filter excess phosphorus from the blood of people with chronic kidney disease.
Activated charcoal can cause adverse effects, especially in large or repeated doses. A doctor will only administer it if the potential benefits outweigh the risks.