Activated charcoal was once considered the universal antidote. Nowadays, it continues to be promoted as a potent natural treatment.

It has a variety of proposed benefits, ranging from lowering cholesterol to whitening teeth and curing hangovers.

Below are benefits of activated charcoal and the science behind its purported benefits.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal is a fine black powder made from bone char, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, coal, olive pits or sawdust.

The charcoal is “activated” by processing it at very high temperatures. The high temperatures change its internal structure, reducing the size of its pores and increasing its surface area.

This results in a charcoal that is more porous than regular charcoal.

Activated charcoal shouldn’t be confused with charcoal briquettes that are used to light your barbecue.

While both can be made from the same base materials, charcoal briquettes have not been “activated” at high temperatures. Moreover, they contain additional substances that are toxic to humans.

Supports Glowing Clear Skin

Living in the real world is tough on skin! Between exposure to dirt and environmental pollutants—and pore-clogging buildup from cosmetics and lotions—skin may start to look dull and pasty, or become prone to occasional breakouts and irritation.

Using an activated charcoal mask or cleansing scrub draws impurities from the skin, exfoliates gently to lift away dead cells, removes excess oils, unclogs pores, and leaves your skin looking bright—with a dewy, ageless glow. Recent research shows that activated charcoal even has a calming effect on the skin to support a healthy, clear complexion.

May Promote Kidney Function

Activated charcoal may help promote kidney function by reducing the number of waste products that the kidneys have to filter.

This could be particularly beneficial in patients suffering from chronic kidney disease, a condition in which the kidneys can no longer properly filter waste products.

Healthy kidneys are normally very well equipped to filter your blood without any additional help. However, patients suffering from chronic kidney disease generally have a harder time removing urea and other toxins from the body.

Prevent gas and bloating

Tablet and capsule forms of activated charcoal can be used to alleviate gas and bloating. The gas-producing factors in food bind to the charcoal and can provide relief from symptoms of bloating and abdominal cramping. Compared with a placebo, use of activated charcoal provided significant symptom relief in both groups after they consumed a gas-producing meal.

The suggested dosing of activated charcoal for gas and bloating is 500 milligrams taken one hour before eating a gas-producing meal. You should drink two 8-ounce glasses of water immediately after taking the charcoal so it can get into your system. If you use activated charcoal for a long time, you are more likely to experience side effects (see below).

Relieve bites and rashes

Activated charcoal is a handy remedy to have on hand in your first aid kit for insect and snakes bites as well as poison ivy rashes. After a bee sting or mosquito bite, mix one capsule of activated charcoal with ½ tablespoon of coconut oil and apply to the affected area. Place a bandage over the treated sting or bite, since activated charcoal can stain clothing. Reapply the remedy every 30 minutes until symptoms are relieved.

If you have been bitten by a spider – such as the brown recluse or black widow – apply the same remedy to the bite as well as the area around it by several inches. Apply the remedy to the bandage and wrap it around the bite. Reapply every two to three hours and rinse the area well between applications and seek medical attention.

Treat acne

A combination of two teaspoons of aloe vera gel and one capsule of activated charcoal can be applied to acne.

Allow the mixture to dry and then rinse it off. Environmental toxins and other substances bond with the charcoal while the aloe vera gel is soothing.

Purify water

Activated charcoal water filters can be used to filter carbon-based impurities such as pesticides, fluoride, industrial waste, and other chemicals as well as chlorine from your drinking water.

These filters will not, however, trap bacteria, minerals, viruses, nitrates, and other substances not attracted to carbon.

If you use activated charcoal filters in your home, you must replace them regularly because they cease being effective once all the bonding pores are filled.

Whiten your teeth

If you have tea, berry, wine, or coffee stains on your teeth, activated charcoal may help. Plaque and minute particles will bind to the charcoal as well as help fight bad breath and gum disease.

However, do not use it on porcelain crowns, caps, or veneers, because the charcoal will stain them. To whiten your teeth, dip a wet toothbrush into powdered activated charcoal and brush your teeth like you always do.

Take a sip of water, swish it around your mouth thoroughly, then spit it out. Rinse your mouth well, making sure there is no trace of charcoal in your spit. Use activated charcoal two to three times a week.

Side effects of activated charcoal

When activated charcoal is taken by mouth, it may cause black tongue, black stools, diarrhea, vomiting, or constipation. In severe cases, it can cause blockage of your gastrointestinal tract.

Anyone who is taking acetaminophen, digoxin, theophylline, or tricyclic antidepressants should not use activated charcoal as a supplement because it can reduce or prevent their absorption.

Activated charcoal also may bond with some nutrients, but this is not considered to be a problem when it is used for poisoning or overdose treatment.

Important tips when taking activated charcoal

When using activated charcoal orally for uses other than poison or overdose treatment, do not take other medications or supplements within two hours, as the charcoal can reduce absorption.

You also should drink 10 to 16 glasses of water daily, as it will assist in eliminating toxins and preventing constipation, which is a possible side effect.

Is Activated Charcoal Safe?

Activated charcoal is considered safe in most cases, and adverse reactions are said to be infrequent and rarely severe.

That said, it may cause some unpleasant side effects, the most common of which are nausea and vomiting.

In addition, constipation and black stools are two other commonly reported side effects.

Interestingly, activated charcoal is a supplement with a variety of uses. It may have the potential to lower cholesterol, treat poisoning, reduce gas and promote kidney function.

However, the studies supporting these benefits tend to be weak, and many of the other benefits linked to activated charcoal are not supported by science. Keep this in mind when deciding whether to give activated charcoal a try.