Charcoal: Should You Believe the Hype?

Activated charcoal has become the new tool to whiten your teeth or detox your body, and it is even used for anti-aging purposes. Despite the rising popularity of charcoal in beauty and food products, there are some risks that consumers should be aware of before applying it to their daily detox shake or beauty regimen.

Human Safety and Function

Dr. Justin Hustoft, assistant professor of physics at Mount Mary University, said that the difference between charcoal that you use in a grill and activated charcoal is the way the natural resource was burned. This process is called pyrolysis.

“(Pyrolysis involves) heating up charcoal in a certain way and preventing oxygen from getting into it to combust it,” he said. “The process drives off other biological components like water and other moist components. After you get rid of the moist biological components, then what you’re left with is a large lump of something we call charcoal.”

Hustoft said that the consumption of activated charcoal is not well understood, so there is a lot of information to learn about its behavior in the human body.

“I assume it is relatively harmless, but then again, anything in large quantities will eventually do something,” Hustoft said. “It’s not that certain things are poisonous, but it’s the dose that makes the poison. Even water can be considered a poison in the sense that if you consume too much of it, it’s bad for your system all together.”

When used in moderation, activated charcoal can be mixed with water to achieve a brighter smile. After the paste is applied gently to the surface of the teeth, wait a maximum of three minutes before rinsing.

How Charcoal Affects Your Teeth

Activated charcoal is found in products like coconut charcoal toothpaste from the brand Vera Beauty. Suela Guri, a dental hygienist at Nikodem Dental in St. Louis, said that using activated charcoal can be damaging to the enamel on your teeth. Guri said that just like baking soda, activated charcoal has an abrasive composition, which can slowly wear away tooth enamel and gum tissue.

“I recommend using whitening strips because the strips do not take away small micrometre of your enamel,” Guri said. “Using activated charcoal as much as twice a day can even stain your gums, causing a dark discoloration color. It’s always best to go to your dentist to clean your teeth and to whiten them; otherwise, the best alternative is to use whitening strips.”

Activated Charcoal In Food & Cosmetics

Dr. Anne Vavrick, food toxicologist and instructor of food science at Mount Mary, said that consuming activated charcoal in food toxicology has not really been an issue, except within the area of filtrated beverages.

“Water that goes into beverages are usually filtered, and food production companies will use activated carbon for filtration because there are particles in water that we drink,” she said.

Activated charcoal-enriched garlic hummus can be served with crunchy vegetables. Created with only a teaspoon of activated charcoal, this is a creative way to spice up appetizers for holidays like Halloween.

Vavrick said that while there have been a few cases of toxic reactions after ingesting activated charcoal, it doesn’t occur often.

“Generally, what happens is people get nauseous or they get gastrointestinal problems, but it’s pretty instantaneous because it passes through the body really quickly,” Vavrick said. “It doesn’t get absorbed into your system, but instead, it stays in your gut.”

Amy Poshepny, an instructor of the cosmetology department at Milwaukee Technical College-Mequon and the aesthetician program coordinator at Milwaukee Area Technical College, said that face masks with activated charcoal are great and recommends using masks that contain activated charcoal from coconut.

“It’s basically burned coconut, and the absorption power helps to pull out impurities and toxins from the skin,” she said.

While Poshepny encourages the use of face masks, she said that face masks should be easy to remove.

Payton Hintz, a senior majoring in graphic design, applies a face mask with activated charcoal. Many masks are reported to function as a detoxification method, removing dirt, bacteria and other substances out of pores to free skin from impurities.

“Otherwise, the outer layer of the skin can be damaged, and it can remove too much oil,” Poshepny said.  “We need some oil and moisture on our skin to protect it, [or] it can become overly dry. Then it gets irritated, and you can break out because your skin will need more oil.”

Poshepny advises against DIY face masks methods that are trending across social media platforms, such as the mask where activated charcoal is mixed with Elmer’s glue. 

“This is not the best idea,” Poshepny said. “That’s because Elmer’s glue is filled with toxins and impurities itself. Soft creams or natural foods like flax seeds can be used as an under-eye mask. As long as it is easy to remove, that is what will be the best for your skin.”

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