activated charcoal tablets

Activated Charcoal Uses May Be Harmful, Possibly Cancerous

[toc]This substance can be used outside the body or inside of it.

Its most common use is outside the body, as a membrane for filtering gas and liquids. Everyone is in agreement that it’s 100% perfectly safe for these uses. That holds true whether it’s for a large industrial application like water purification, or a small “personal” application like lining your underwear with it to reduce the smell of farts (no joke, the flatulence filtering Shreddies men’s hipsters underwear are a real product with rave reviews).

All of those external uses are agreed to be safe. Those aren’t where the controversy is at.

When used inside the body – in the form of a dietary supplement – that’s what the debate is over.

Whether activated charcoal benefits are the real deal or if their potential side effects from ingesting it are actually dangerous.

Technically it’s not a food, let alone a superfood, yet that’s the status is has attained among nutrition and alternative medicine enthusiasts.

Activated charcoal teeth whitening, a remedy for preventing flatulence, and a way to rid your body of toxins are just a few of the popular uses for it. Some use make a face mask or take a bath with it, believing it “sucks” heavy metals and pollutants out of their skin.

Not only are people buying the bulk powder and capsule supplements, but some restaurants and juiceries are now using it as an ingredient in the foods and beverages they sell.

Where to buy activated charcoal? Well it’s gone so mainstream, you can find it almost anywhere including Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, Target, Whole Foods, and most large grocery stores in America. The only places we haven’t seen it for sale are Costco and Sam’s Club, at least not yet.

People are quick to hype the health benefits and indeed some have research to support them. However when those fans discuss the side effects, often times it’s only the benign which are brought up, such as having black stools or a black tongue.

On the flip side, some are ringing alarm bells at to what they believe to be potentially dangerous characteristics of charcoal. One in particular is quite controversial; the idea that you might actually be ingesting carcinogenic substances along with it.

What is activated charcoal?

Almost any organic material (something that was once alive) can be used to make charcoal when it is burned. It can be made from a recently living substance such as dead wood, coconut husks (coir), and peat moss. It can also come from fossil fuels including the most common form, bituminous coal, or subbituminous and anthracite grades of coal.

Whatever the source, they are considered “activated” after their internal surface areas are expanded, which can be accomplished through extremely high heat (the most common method) or by using a chemical activator.

Is activated charcoal the same as activated carbon? Yes, they’re just different names for the same thing.

How is it made?

coconut shell
Charcoal supplements are often made from coconut husks

The heat treatment method, which is sometimes called steam active charcoal, is often made from wood or coconut husks if it’s going to be used for dietary purposes (industrial uses often make it from fossil fuel coal).

Using the heat of fire, the wood or husks are heated to create charred pieces. Next, those chars are placed into an enclosed furnace which burns at a very high temperature – up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. No oxygen is present, but steam is used in the process.

While in this high-heat environment, the carbon atoms are peeled off as the volatile compound are removed. Over the course of the production process, it leaves a network of carbon atoms which have been hollowed out. These “cobwebs” of carbon atoms create a large surface area inside.

The surface area of 1 gram of activated carbon is the equivalent of 500 square meters of surface area. To put that in perspective, your standard NFL football field has a surface area of 5347.7 meters… so about 10% of that area is in 1 gram of the carbon. Depending on the organic matter and production process used, some even have larger surface areas – up to 1,200 square meters per gram (1).

What is it used for exactly?

Setting aside potential side effects for a moment, there’s no denying the many beneficial uses for activated charcoal powder and membranes. In fact, you may not even have clean water to drink if it weren’t for this substance.

The suspected dangers of activated carbon have to do with ingesting it. When used outside the human body – which is by far its most common use – everyone seems to be in agreement that it is not only beneficial, but also perfectly safe.

Water purification

running sinkFrom your at-home filtered pitcher to some types of water treatment plants, these membrane are used to filter out sediment, heavy metals, and other things you definitely don’t want in your glass of drinking water.

In a similar manner, hard liquors like vodka are filtered of their impurities by using these membranes during production.

Airborne pollution

Paints, varnishes, and other petroleum based products emit gasses which contain harmful (and sometimes cancer causing) volatile organic compounds. By using activated carbon in an air purifier, many of these can be captured. Likewise for power plant and industrial emissions.

Cleaning up spills and groundwater remediation are two other uses.

Medical uses

Another category of non-controversial uses involve healthcare. To be clear, by that we’re referencing applications done within a hospital environment, not as a do-it-yourselfer home remedy.

When administered orally, activated charcoal used in emergency medicine can be an effective at reducing the effects of some poisons and situations of overdosing. This is due to the carbon binding to and absorbing the toxins within its hollowed out network. Sometimes doctors need to administer multiple doses for it to be beneficial and it only helps with certain types of poisons.

For example, it does not work against arsenic, ethanol (alcohol), methanol (wood alcohol), ethylene, lithium, glycol, or cyanide (2).

What is being debated?

When was activated charcoal invented? 1822 is the first documented use of it, by the French chemist Bussy (3). That was for industrial purposes. It wasn’t until 1963 that it became universally recognized as a treatment for poisoning, when the Journal of Pediatrics published a medical review for it (4).

emergency roomDuring the 50+ years since then, it has been developed into a pharmaceutical treatment for emergency acute poisoning:

  • Dosage of 5 to 50 grams total; typically 50 grams for adults and 25 grams for children. The activated charcoal is mixed in an aqueous solution.
  • Ideally at least a 10 to 1 ratio of charcoal to poison intake.
  • Often combined with a laxative, since charcoal on its own can slow the digestive tract.

When used in a hospital setting and/or under careful monitoring of a doctor, it can be a lifesaving treatment. Even the World Health Organization has it on their List of Essential Medicines (5). This is not what’s being debated.

The problem is that in recent years, people have begun playing doctor at home with the substance. We’re not talking about for use in poisoning either, but rather a regular consumption of it – sometimes even daily – without being aware of the potentially dangerous side effects that may result from it.

They’re not exactly using a pharmaceutical grade form, either. Many seek out instructions on how to make activated charcoal at home. What they end up making is something completely different.

Remember it takes a specialized furnace that burns up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit without oxygen present. That process is needed destroy and remove the volatile organic compounds.

With the substantially lower temperatures people are doing in their kitchen ovens, grills, and other self-made contraptions, they’re just making plain ol’ chars, it’s not charcoal activated. What they end up creating is a highly oxidized matter which may contain high concentrations of carcinogenic substances (more on this in a minute). That’s why you only want to buy a legit version.

Confirmed side effects

Before we get into the dangers of the homemade activated charcoals and other sub-par varieties, there’s already enough to worry about with the real kind.

1. Decreased absorption of vitamins

man with handful of supplements and water glassEven before knowing about the research which validates this, the fact that it’s used to absorb poisons in the ER should clue you in that it might be absorbing other stuff in the stomach and small intestine.

As a dietary supplement, activated charcoal detox reviews claim it first absorbs toxic substances before “competing” with the body for absorbing nutrients.

The carbon does not have a brain, it is not a living organism. To say it can choose to absorb a toxin and choose to bypass a vitamin or mineral is a questionable statement, to say the least.

The Journal of Food Quality published a study last decade where they measured the effects of mixing activated carbon with apple juice (6). The amount that was mixed in was quite low, a much lower concentration than what’s used in the ER for overdoses.

Five different dilutions were measured; 0, 0.5, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 grams of the charcoal powder per liter of apple juice.

The results? It absorbed vitamins. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), thiamine (B1), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), and biotin (B7) wound up inside of it. Is activated charcoal safe to take everyday if it is having a negative effect on your body’s absorption of vitamins?

Given that all compounds (toxins as well as nutrients) have different molecular sizes, weights, and shapes, it is true they can have different degrees of absorption, or none at all. However, the size and structure of many beneficial compounds is not dramatically different than that of toxic compounds.

The long term side effects of using activated charcoal daily, weekly, or even monthly on nutrient absorption is largely unknown.

The most studied medical use is in a hospital environment, which is a short term dose for the treatment of poisoning. Using it everyday may not be producing noticeable side effects, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s safe; adverse side effects may by occurring (i.e. nutrient malabsorption) which cannot be easily detected by the person using it.

2. Decreased absorption of medicines

Reportedly, the carbon will (7):

…effectively prevent the gastrointestinal absorption of most drugs and toxins present in the stomach at the time of charcoal administration”

Prescription drugs, over the counter pills, and other supplements for your health may be absorbed by the active charcoal. Just a few examples include:

  • aspirin
  • dapsone, an antiobiotic
  • meprobamate, a tranquilizer for anxiety
  • phenobarbitone for epilepsy
  • phenytoin for seizures
  • dextropropoxyphene, a pain medicine and cough suppressant
  • cardiac glycosides, for irregular heart beats and heart failure
  • theophylline for asthma and COPD
  • Tegretol (carbamazepine) for epilepsy and neuropathic pain
  • oral contraceptives/birth control (8)

This is not a complete list, just a few examples of medications it has been documented as interfering with. In total, 240 drugs (1,792 brand and generic names) have been identified as being affected by charcoal consumption (9). Only 1 out of those 240 is listed as having a “minor” effect, while the rest are all “moderate.”

As you see in the above examples, some peoples’ lives are dependent on those types of prescription medications.

Ambien, Lunesta, BuSpar, Lyrica, Prozac, Wellbutrin SR and XL, Reglan, Cymbalta, Cardizem Levoxly, Flonase, omega 3 fish oil, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, were some of the common prescriptions and supplements which were listed as not having known interactions with charcoal, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe to take with it. That just means a known interaction currently is not listed in their database.

Interactions with birth control

birth control pillsTaking activated charcoal tablets with birth control is a horrible idea, yet many women are unaware of the dangerous side effect of doing so.

For women on birth control pills, the rate it may cause an unintended pregnancy is alarming. According to FactMed, which analyzes compiled information from the FDA and its own users, between 2004 and 2012 there were 58 reports of active charcoal side effects. Among those, 2 were for unintended pregnancy (10).

For all drugs in existence, the unintended pregnancy rate is only 0.03% of all reported side effects.

Contrast that to charcoal, which is a rate of 3.45% or about 115x higher than the unintended pregnancy rate resulting from all drugs, on average.

The caveats to keep in mind is that yes, not many official reports exist for this niche supplement, so the sample size those statistics are based off of is quite small. It’s also not clear if those reports were for poison treatments in a hospital and/or from people using it as a dietary supplement. Whatever the case, how many unintended and unreported pregnancies might have resulted from activated carbon, but the women just weren’t aware it could have been the cause?

3. Pulmonary complications

You know what it’s like to drink something and have it “go down the wrong tube.” Major respiratory complications have happened from charcoal entering the lungs.

A 2002 report by the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics reported “the development of chronic lung disease” in a pediatric emergency treatment. It occurred after the activated charcoal entered the trachea, which was not intended (11).

In 2006 there was a case report of a 45 year-old man who accidentally inhaled activated charcoal into his right lung 2 years prior (12). The man, who had a history of alcoholism and tobacco abuse, was admitted to the hospital for a suspected barbiturate overdose. As part of the process to detox him, they administered activated charcoal, but put the tube down the wrong pipe and into his right lung.

Since that time, he had experienced episodes of pneumonia, pneumothorax, and respiratory failures.

precancerous mass
The 7 x 7 x 4.5 cm carcinoma which was removed

A mass in his lung lit up a PET scan and a biopsy confirmed the mass had anthracosis (the early stage of black lung disease) and granulomatous inflammation (that’s when your body “walls off” foreign substances it can’t get rid of).

The mass was surgically removed and “charcoal concretion was evident” in it. At the time it was removed it was not cancerous, however it had the trademarks of being pre-cancerous; “the radiographic and metabolic characteristics of bronchogenic carcinoma” (aka lung cancer).

Thankfully he made a safe recovery and no longer experienced the respiratory side effects after its removal. Though others mentioned in passing throughout the study were not so lucky, including a “young woman who died 14 weeks after tricyclic antidepressant overdose and massive activated charcoal aspiration.”

4. GI problems

Given that it’s not a food, it’s no surprise that there are a plethora of documented gastrointestinal side effects. Using activated charcoal as a supplement involves much different circumstances than how it’s used medically, but some users have still reported similar side effects (13):

  • Vomiting and nausea. In a study of 275 adult patients, 20.4% (56 of them) experienced vomiting within 1 hour after receiving dosages of 50 grams or less.
  • Ileus, which is when the normal contractile movements of the intestinal wall temporarily stop
  • Bowel obstructions
  • Diarrhea
  • Perforation of the GI tract, which can be very serious
  • Black colored stools

5. Metabolic disorders

Anytime there’s diarrhea or malfunctioning of the intestines, it means less water absorption and that often leads to dehydration.

An electrolyte imbalance condition called hypernatremia can occur, which is having too high of sodium levels because of decreased water absorption.

Hypermagnesemia, a condition where there is too much magnesium in the blood, is another activated charcoal side effect, though primarily when multiple doses are given.

What critics of supplemental usage say

Since officially it is only administered for acute poisoning, the side effects mentioned so far are primarily referencing its use in a medical setting, under the care of a physician.

When used as a supplement and on a regular basis, there’s not a lot of research which evaluates the potential side effects. This is complicated by the fact that some people use different types of charcoal which contain impurities or they’re not completely activated.

Does activated charcoal cause cancer?

There are some who question whether certain forms of it may increase the risk of cancer. This theory is based on the following hypotheses.

grilled chicken breast

Eating the well done and burnt parts of food is frowned upon. This is because of their Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs). In layman’s terms, AGEs are unstable and reactive compounds which can interfere with with the healthy biological functions of cells.

There’s no avoiding them completely. Our body actually produces them internally and we form them “in excess during aging and diabetes” (14). While we may have limited control over what our body creates, it is advised to minimize dietary sources. Which foods have the highest concentrations of them? Those cooked at high heat, especially when they’re grilled, burnt, and charred.

For example with meat, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are the primary category of AGEs which are found. Among the 20+ types of HCAs in meat, the four most common (and most studied) were added to the Department of Health and Human Services Report on Carcinogens. In the 2004 edition, they listed them as “Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” (15).

With plant-based foods that are carbohydrate rich, it’s not HCAs but acrylamide which is of concern.

Some critics of activated charcoal say if burnt food is bad to eat, then how can charcoal be healthy.

Being a niche dietary supplement rather than a normal food, we are unable to locate research which measures whether or not there are substances such as these in activated charcoal. We even left off the “activated” word and simply searched PubMed for: advanced glycation end products charcoal (those 5 words in any order). There were only 2 results and neither were relevant (16).

Without an extensive, peer reviewed body of research on this topic, siding with either opponents or proponents of activated charcoal may be difficult to do.

However in theory, our knowledge tells us that at least some of these end products should not be present or only in minimal quantities in charcoal, especially active charcoal. The reason why is because with some AGEs, they’re found mostly during the later stages, not in the final stage. For example, light roast coffee tends to have higher amounts of acrylamide than dark roast coffee. This is because the latter is more roasted.

Although this is not based on any study (since we can’t find any), we would presume that properly prepared (as in, professionally manufactured) activated charcoal would contain matter which is in the final stage, or at least it should be. However, homemade versions would definitely be at risk of containing AGEs since the wood does not reach high enough temperatures.

Other variables to consider are the type of material used to make it (wood, coconut husks, etc.) as well as whether there may be other similar unstable molecule in the final stage which we are unaware of.

Given that it’s not a food, there is just very little research out there on the theory that charcoal may increase cancer risk.

Or is it possible it may actually decrease cancer risk?

Some suggest activated carbon benefits these cancer causing substances, by soaking them up before they are digested. That might actually decrease cancer risk and/or cellular damage from AGEs. Several years ago a patent was filed that says:

“An object of the present invention is to provide an adsorptive carbon which can effectively adsorb vivotoxin such as the advanced glycation end products, and an adsorbent containing the adsorptive carbon as an active ingredient.”

That’s from patent application number US 13/583,181 titled “Adsorption carbon, and adsorbent,” whose filing dates back to 2010. As of the time of writing, it’s still pending. (17).

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

The possibility of HCAs and acrylamide in activated charcoal powder may not be the biggest concern. Perhaps what deserves more attention is whether there are PAHs in it and if so, is your body absorbing them when you use the powder or capsules.

IARC cancer ratingsPolycyclic (or polynuclear) aromatic hydrocarbons are a category which consists of more than 100 different compounds that are released when items are burned. Fossil fuels are the most prevalent source, whether it’s burning gasoline from a car, natural gas from a furnace, or a coal-burning power plant. Even though fossil fuels are the most common source, any organic matter that is burned can produce them, including “new” things like trees that burn down in a forest fire.

Many types of cooked meat are major dietary sources of PAHs. One of those is benzo(a)pyrene, which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the IARC (18)

The question is, have PAHs in activated charcoal been measured and if so, how much is there? Not only in the charcoal itself, but also if it is absorbing them during the production process (i.e. the burning fuels used to create the heat and possibly emitting PAHs).

If it does contain PAHs or if they are absorbed during the production process, is there a danger of them being released into the body during digestion? It’s a valid question to ask, considering that for activated charcoal medication, it has been said (19):

“There is limited evidence that desorption of a toxin from activated charcoal may occur. Therefore, there is a potential for toxin readsorption and enhanced toxicity.”

Out of the 100 or so types, 15 are classified in the U.S. Government’s 13th Report on Carcinogens as being “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

We are unaware of research which evaluates whether there are PAHs in activated carbon. You can spend a hour Googling the words and be left empty-handed, because if there is research out there on the topic, finding it among the sea of data is difficult given that activated charcoal membrane uses (filters) are actually for removing PAHs from all kinds of things. So external to the body, it’s very useful at actually reducing exposure to PAHs. Internally, its unclear since eating it is relatively uncommon.

Long term side effects are unknown

Based on what you read online, those who allege it might cause cancer only represent a sliver of the critics. For the most part, the main arguments against using activated carbon powder daily or on a regular basis have more to do with the unknown consequences of doing so.

Sure, it has been used for roughly 50 years in a medical setting rather safely, but that is as a one-time dose or a short series of doses (i.e. every 4 to 6 hours over a period of days).

Very few relevant results come up when searching PubMed for: activated charcoal supplement (which shows results for those 3 words even when they’re not next to each other) (20). Having that word “supplement” somewhere in there should uncover clinical studies and medical papers involving non-emergency uses.

charcoal capsulesAs far as the short term side effects of activated carbon powder supplements, they may include:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • abdominal swelling
  • black tongue
  • black mouth
  • stained teeth

You may be surprised to see that last one, given that activated charcoal teeth whitening is one of its most popular uses… people open a capsule, sprinkle it on their toothbrush, and go to town with it. Online there are many before and after photos and reviews of people doing this. The idea is that it works as a natural tooth whitener to lift stains from coffee, wine, and tea (it’s not a bleach, so it’s not claimed to change yellow or naturally darker hues of teeth). How well it works has been debated and the ADA has yet to formally approve or oppose it.

The most negative reviews you see from people with all natural teeth are typically just dissatisfaction with the results. However for the users with porcelain veneers, crowns, and capped teeth, you are more likely to see complaints of charcoal uses resulting in stains.

Whether those people had real porcelain or something cheaper may be a factor. No one can claim using charcoal on porcelain veneers is completely safe, but it is a high quality material that is not very porous (it’s why coffee doesn’t even stain them). Even if it might be safe on them, given how much they cost, it’s hard to see why the risk is worth it. A good toothpaste or whitening product from CVS or Target seems like a safer bet!

Are there legitimate health benefits?

No one questions its use in medical applications for poisoning, but are there bona fide activated charcoal benefits when used as a supplement? As an herbal remedy, these are 5 of the most common ways it’s being used.

1. Gas and bloating relief

boy wearing gas maskAmong all the suspected benefits, this one may be the most researched and at least in theory, plausibly backed by science (after all, the membranes are used to absorb gases in the air). It is one of the most popular reasons people buy activated charcoal in store and online.

The 1986 study involving Americans and Indians

Starting with one of the earliest studies first, the American Journal of Gastroenterology published a study 30+ years ago (1986) that involved a double blind clinical trial (21).

Two groups of people were used. 30 from the U.S. and 69 from India. The reason for these choices is because Indians are known to have vastly different diets and gut flora ecology. To measure how much gas was being produced by the colon, breath hydrogen levels were measured.

The results? Activated charcoal works for gas versus placebo, at least in this study. Both groups – the Americans and Indians – who received it were said to have “significantly reduced” gassiness.

While not as sophisticated of a study, the same journal published an earlier test in 1981 which also claimed decreased gas following what would normally be a gas-producing meal (22).

The 1999 study involving 5 healthy volunteers

It’s hard to give this research much weight since it involved so few people. They were instructed to ingest a dose of 0.52 grams 4x daily for 7 days. Before and after that, intestinal gases were measured (23).

Does activated charcoal work for gas and bloating? Not according to this study. The conclusion was that “commonly employed doses of activated charcoal do not appreciably influence the liberation of fecal gases.”

The 2000 study involving activated charcoal vs. rifaximin

Rifaximin (which sells under the brand name Xifaxan) is a prescription medication that was approved by the FDA in 1998 for traveler’s diarrhea caused by E. coli. In 2015 it received FDA approval for IBS. With no generic version available in the U.S., its quite expensive and costs upwards of $30 per 550 mg tablet.

Although not approved for the treatment of excess gas, it has been known to be used off label by doctors for that purpose. This study might be a reason why (24).

In total there were 55 participants; 21 healthy volunteers and 34 “functional” patients. The group of 21 did not receive any medication and were used as a baseline for comparison.

Within the group of 34 functional patients, a double blind and double dummy controlled trial was conducted. Each person either received activated charcoal (400 mg dose twice daily) or rifaximin (400 mg dose twice daily). This continued for 7 days. Both before and after, gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and frequency of flatulence was recorded.

It was found that the medication significantly reduced gas production and the number of episodes, however the charcoal did not.

2. Believed to remove toxins

activated carbon detox bathUsing activated charcoal for detox is the latest benefit claimed by many. Some even say it’s liver cleansing.

In addition to drinking the powder and taking it as pills, you hear of people using it for a detox bath. They put a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the charcoal powder in their bath water and soak in it for 10 to 20 minutes. We read about a lady who claims to buy bulk activated charcoal powder from Walmart and dumps it into her bubble bath every weekend.

Some combine the powder with another so-called superfood like coconut oil to make a face mask. They do this in the hope of treating acne, eczema, rashes, and a laundry list of skin ailments.

The problem is that none of these cleansing/detox benefits are backed by science.

Apparently, people have extrapolated from the legit medical use of activated carbon powder and used that as a basis to make all of these wild claims.

That extrapolation just doesn’t work because for starters, it only soaks up the poison that it actually comes in contact with in the stomach and digestive tract (i.e. accidentally ingested poison). It doesn’t “suck” toxins out of your blood and body as many claim.

This means using it to remove toxins from your body is nonsensical, unless you literally just ingested poison (and even then, only certain types will it absorb). There are no clinical trials or peer reviewed research which suggests activated charcoal removes toxins daily when used as supplement.

3. Cholesterol impact

syringe viles in cupOne common benefit claimed is that it can lower cholesterol, however the fact is there are only 2 clinical trials listed on PubMed and both are from the 80’s.

The first in 1988 was a double-blind prospective trial and found activated charcoal had no effect on hyperlipidaemia (elevated levels of a specific lipid or overall lipids in the blood). (26)

The second was in 1989 and was a crossover study that involved only 17 patients in total. They ingested either the charcoal in varying dosages, bran, or cholestyramin (a substance known to reduce high cholesterol).

It was suggested that the activated charcoal, cholestyramin, or both in combination, were all about equal in efficacy.

There are no other studies to suggest activated charcoal lowers cholesterol. So you have one 30 year old study that says it doesn’t and another that says it does (but only when compared against an old substance that was before modern statins). In short, there’s not sufficient evidence to suggest it can reduce cholesterol levels.

4. Alleged hangover cure

Do charcoal pills work for hangovers? There are people who claim that and are buying it for that purpose, but the research to support it is lacking. However unlike the “cleansing” and “detox” claims from drinking it, there might be evidence to suggest it’s possible for one of the specific causes of hangovers.

As far back as 1986 there was a study which confirmed that activated charcoal had no significant difference on blood alcohol levels, at least in humans (an earlier study claimed it did in dogs) (25).

Jack Daniels whiskey glassSo it won’t absorb the alcohol and make you less drunk, but can activated charcoal prevent a hangover?

No, at least for the vast majority of causes. When you drink, any number of side effects and symptoms can be a contributor to the hangover:

  • Producing more urine, which leads to dehydration
  • Your blood vessel expand from alcohol
  • Your blood sugar drops, which can cause fatigue
  • It’s true alcohol can make you sleepy, but studies show it actually causes a poorer quality of sleep. That can leave you feeling hungover the next day.
  • Being that alcohol is a poison, your body produces an inflammatory response to it. That response can trigger symptoms like difficulty concentrating, which is frequent complaint after a night of heavy drinking.

All of the above are caused by the alcohol in your body. Nothing you take with it will change those.

The one and only aspect that at least in theory, activated carbon might help has to do with the congeners in alcohols. Those are the chemicals which give some types of drink their flavors. Darker alcoholic drinks like rum and whiskey contain the highest amounts.

It is at least theoretically possible (not probable, but possible) that taking activated charcoal before drinking (very shortly before) might absorb some congeners when they’re both in the stomach. However, alcohol is absorbed so quickly by the lining of your stomach, one has to wonder if there would be enough time for it to work.

If you go back to 1971, there was a research paper titled: “Adsorption of whisky congeners by activated charcoal. Chemical and clinical studies related to hangover.”

It is actually so old we cannot access the text for it online. Presumably, they were posing the same question, though no clinical trials or scientific studies have been done to the best of our knowledge.

Verdict? Out of the many causes of hangovers, there is only one which might be benefited by carbon use. However there is no scientific data to suggest it actually works for that.

5. Activated charcoal for dogs

It’s not just humans that are using it for purported health benefits. Some even have their pets using the capsules.

Given that dogs have a carnivorous diet (or at least they should), it comes as no surprise that they produce some of the most foul smelling farts. Read about protein farts if you want to understand the science behind that.

A study about this very topic was published in a 2001 edition of the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association (27). The goal was to find out if feeding dogs activated charcoal, yucca schidigera, and zinc acetate would reduce their amount of gas and lessen the bad smell.

English bulldogFor the study, 8 adult dogs were given these 3 ingredients and then for the 5 hours that followed, a device was attached to measure hydrogen sulfide concentrations (sulfurs are largely responsible for the odor of gas in both humans and animals).

The results? The amount of hydrogen sulfide was reduced by:

  • 71% from the charcoal
  • 58% by the zinc acetate
  • 38% by the yucca schidigera
  • 86% when all 3 were given at the same time

How much activated charcoal for dogs and cats? That question was not answered. Given that their body size can vary greatly, this is something you should ask your veterinarian.


As a dietary supplement, this is one of the most controversial. There are plenty of valid activated charcoal uses, but those take place outside the body. For claims made about benefits inside the body, as a supplement the evidence is flimsy or not even there for almost all purported claims.

However the idea that it benefits gas – both frequency and smell – at least has some research to suggest it might.

If you do choose to buy and use this powder, please make sure you consult your doctor first to ensure it doesn’t interact with any medications. Homemade activated charcoal should be avoided, as should unknown and unverifiable sources.

Activated charcoal is not safe during pregnancy, because it has not been evaluated in pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding. Women in both of those categories should avoid using it entirely.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.