The charcoal scam: Do face masks, smoothies work?

From face masks to smoothies, charcoal is everywhere, with a promise to clean up after itself. But does it really deliver what it promises?

March 12, 2018 12:35 pm | Updated 12:35 pm IST

Girl in a cosmetic black mask. Cleansing mask of aspirin and activated carbon. Black cosmetic face mask

Girl in a cosmetic black mask. Cleansing mask of aspirin and activated carbon. Black cosmetic face mask

Yes, we hear you. Every pop-up ad, beauty store, online beauty retailer is telling us how charcoal soaps, cleansers, and masks are all so awesome, and how you absolutely must get them right away. And, if that wasn’t enough, you’re now being peddled charcoal supplements, smoothies with activated charcoal as an ingredient and charcoal toothpastes. We dug around a little and asked the experts for the facts. Here’s what we found out.

The theory

Activated charcoal is charcoal that has been treated at a high temperature — done via heat or chemical treatment — to increase its reactivity. Charcoal is used as an antidote to poisons and drug overdoses, as also to treat heavy metal poisoning, in ERs. “Prescription-grade activated charcoal is an FDA-approved drug, which we use in emergencies, typically, for cases of poisoning,” says Dr Amitabh Parti, Additional Director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. “Activated charcoal binds very easily to even heavier poisons and toxins, preventing their circulation in the blood.” This happens through adsorption — a process by which activated charcoal doesn’t absorb other substances, but binds itself to them and helps expel them from your system. “Activated charcoal itself is colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-toxic,” says Dr R C Murthy, Chief Scientist (Retd), Consultant, CSIR — Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow. “It has the potency to absorb up to 60% of poisoning substances from your stomach, but it cannot be absorbed into your stomach or intestines. Other ingredients used to make the charcoal more effective may prove unsafe.”

Charcoal for your skin

If you’ve been distraught because you’re not sure what to buy or because it may cost you a few fingers to buy, we’ve got good news: You can leave those charcoal-laden goodies right where they are — on the store shelves. “It’s all just hype,” says Dr Jaishree Sharad, dermatologist, author ofSkin Talks and CEO, Skinfiniti Skin and Laser Clinic, Mumbai. Delhi-based celebrity dermatologist Dr Kiran Lohia agrees. “It does the job, but it’s not worth all the fuss. Activated charcoal is a cleansing agent, yes, but it’s just not as fabulous as it’s being made out to be.”

The bottom line: If you do want to indulge in that face pack or cleanser with activated charcoal, go right ahead. It’s not going to hurt you. But it’s not a magic potion for your skin either. It will do just what any other cleansing agent will do for you.

Charcoal for your stomach

Gwyneth Paltrow, in her magazine Goop, called charcoal lemonade the ‘best juice cleanse’. “It is seen as a digestive, but we don’t have any studies to back up that claim,” says Delhi-based clinical nutritionist Ishi Khosla, founder of Whole Foods India and “Besides, when you ingest charcoal, you should only have the tiniest amount, and never for a prolonged period of time, or too often.” Dr Parti says that even in the ERs, only 50 to 100 grams at a time is administered. “And we don’t give it to patients with a history of constipation, or if they’re on medication, because it can prevent, or at the very least delay, the absorption of the medicine in the body.”

Coal latte. Black cappuccino. Black coffee with activated carbon

Coal latte. Black cappuccino. Black coffee with activated carbon

Research on the safety and effectiveness of activated charcoal is limited, but instances of charcoal bezoars (stones) in the digestive tract have been reported, and according to a George Washington University report, repeated use has been associated with cases of colitis or colon inflammation. “Activated charcoal can lead to gastrointestinal blockages, because that’s how it works — it latches on to other substances in your system and gets bigger and bigger,” Dr Parti explains. “Exactly why we don’t give it to patients with constipation issues.”

Besides, activated charcoal can’t differentiate between the good and the bad. So, it ends up binding with nutrients and expelling those from the body as well, though Dr Parti feels that would be a problem only if you’re consuming it frequently. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” says Khosla. “There are many proven effective ways to detox your system, so I don’t see a need to resort to something that’s just not been studied enough, and could, potentially, cause harm.”

The bottom line: Use it extremely sparingly, if you must. But as Dr Parti says: “Is what we are consuming on a daily basis so toxic, that we need something that’s used to remove poisons from our body, to fix our systems?”

Charcoal for your teeth

Historically, charcoal has been used in many parts of the world, given the unavailability of toothpaste, to clean teeth. In recent times, this has been turned on its head, with charcoal being used as an active ingredient in toothpastes.

The claim is, whiter teeth — it rids your teeth of discolouring agents, results in better breath, and is said to fend off halitosis, by removing the toxins that cause bad breath. However, a review of previous research studies on the subject, published in The Journal of the American Dental Association, reported there was inconclusive evidence of the effects of activated charcoal on oral hygiene. It advises dental practitioners to caution their patients about the unproven claims of charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices. According to a paper published in The Pharmaceutical Journal, the effects on fillings, crowns and veneers in unknown.

The b ottom line: “From a safety point of view, it is okay to use charcoal to clean your teeth, once in a while, in very small amounts,” says Dr Parti. “But try not to ingest it.”

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