Everything You Need to Know About Activated Charcoal

iStock
iStock

Activated charcoal is everywhere. Touted in alternative health circles as a versatile treatment for almost anything that ails you, its proponents claim that it clears up your acne, treats inflammation caused by "toxic mold," draws out the venom from a snake bite, eases a hangover, halts your farts, removes "toxins" from your body, and brightens your pearly whites.

But there's little to no evidence for these claims. Though charcoal has a very long history as a folk remedy—ancient Egyptians used it as a treatment for "odorous vapors from putrefying wounds"—for the past century or so, its medical use has primarily been in emergency rooms to treat overdose and poisoning cases. In most cases there just aren't any clinical studies to test its efficacy for any other use. Not only that, but experts who spoke with Mental Floss caution that these treatments might come with added risks, too.

WHAT IS "ACTIVATED CHARCOAL"?

Activated charcoal isn't quite the same thing as the briquettes you use in your grill. Though they're both made of residue left from burning carbon-rich organic materials like wood, peat, or coconut shells, activated charcoal is oxygenated, which makes it far more porous. To activate the charcoal, manufacturers use steam or hot air to erode its internal surface [PDF], which increases the outside surface area along with its adsorption rate—the capacity to bind materials to a surface. Because of those adsorption abilities, charcoal has earned a reputation as a kind of bodily super-cleanser.

When you ingest activated charcoal, it works as a "gastrointestinal decontaminant," attracting various chemicals from your stomach and digestive tract, and then eliminating them from the body. That's why it's so helpful in cases of poisoning or drug overdose: It adsorbs the dangerous substance so it doesn't enter your bloodstream, then simply passes right on through—and out of—your system.

FROM E.R. TO GOOP

Activated charcoal had been popular in certain health food circles for years when, in late 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow's website Goop featured a "charcoal lemonade" sold by a Californian juice bar on a list of the best juice cleanses for "a good old-fashioned detox." Today, the substance can be found in everything from facial masks and odor-dampening comforters to a wide range of food and drink: Chefs are using activated charcoal to create pitch-black cakes, cocktails, pizza crust, and ice cream that's taking Instagram by storm.

The tiny bit of activated charcoal in the occasional cocktail probably won't do any damage—but it's not a good idea to take the substance on a regular basis, according to Rachele Pojednic, a professor of nutrition at Simmons College. "When you ingest it, you can't target what it's going to interact with," she says, "so if you’re on certain medications, you need to be really careful."

Some have never been on board with the stuff, including the FDA and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which recently started enforcing in restaurants a long-standing ban on activated charcoal. The agency—following FDA guidelines—considers it an "adulterated food."

IN CASE OF POISONING …

Aside from treatment for an overdose or poisoning, you don't need to take anything to "detox" your body: not a supplement, not a juice, not a soup. Nothing. That's what your liver is for.

"There's really no data to show that [activated charcoal] is going to do anything other than remove some pretty high-level ingested toxins" like the ones found in cases of poisoning or overdose, Pojednic says.

It's also dubious that activated charcoal can cure a hangover, as some alternative health practitioners recommend. "You feel a hangover because you're really dehydrated," she tells Mental Floss. "There's nothing in your system that needs to be extracted." While you might feel better after taking it, Pojednic says that's most likely because your hangover went away over time.

There are some risks associated with ingesting activated charcoal, too. Thanks to its adsorption abilities, charcoal can also take out all of the good chemicals in your system, including nutrients and the active ingredients in certain medications (like antidepressants) if taken around the same time.

BRUSH YOUR TEETH BLACK?

One of the most common products you'll find activated charcoal in is toothpaste; its advocates claim it whitens teeth. About a year ago, John Brooks, DDS, a dentist and researcher at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, found himself getting questions from clinicians and students wondering what to tell their patients about activated charcoal toothpaste. He and two other professors reviewed the scientific literature and found that there's little evidence to support the claims of charcoal toothpastes because they haven't been tested. Brooks tells Mental Floss, "None of these charcoal toothpastes have undergone the rigors of scientific testing."

And, again, there are potential risks. While it's possible these toothpastes could whiten your teeth in the short term, they're so highly abrasive that they're likely to remove the enamel from your teeth too, which means your teeth won't stay white for long. Brooks also worries about patients regularly swishing known carcinogens—like silica and bentonite clay, which some charcoal toothpastes contain—around in their mouths. Moreover, he says, charcoal could potentially interfere with beneficial toothpaste ingredients, like fluoride.

IN THEORY, IT COULD HELP YOUR SKIN

The one cosmetic benefit of activated charcoal might be found in skincare products—maybe. As chemist Michelle Wong writes, "There isn't any good data on whether or not it works, but theoretically, it could work." It's possible activated charcoal's adsorption abilities could reach into your pores, pulling out the dirt and oils that get trapped there. But these products have not been rigorously tested, so we can't be certain about their efficacy. Wong also points out that activated charcoal typically takes several hours to have an effect, whereas most charcoal skincare products are applied for mere minutes.

The activated charcoal trend seems to be holding strong, despite the lack of evidence for its health claims. So eat that pitch-black ice cream every once in a while if you like, but don't count on it to improve your health.

U.S. Postal Service Issues 'Healing' Stamp to Help Americans Struggling With PTSD

USPS
USPS

Showing your support for military veterans and others afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is now just a lick away. This week, the United States Postal Service (USPS) released a new Healing PTSD stamp, with proceeds going toward the assistance and treatment of service members and civilians struggling with emotional and psychological symptoms brought on by a troubling life event.

The front of the stamp, which features a green plant growing from a pile of fallen leaves, is intended to symbolize healing. The stamp is what the USPS refers to as semipostal, which is postage that sells for a premium in order to raise funds for causes thought to be in the public interest. The Healing PTSD edition is 65 cents, or 10 cents more than a regularly-priced first-class stamp. That money, minus the postage paid and the reimbursement of reasonable costs acquired by the Postal Service, will be distributed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and routed to the National Center for PTSD.

The first semipostal stamp was issued in 1998 and was intended to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research. A stamp for Alzheimer’s research followed in 2017. Semipostal stamps are intended to be sold for no more than two years at a time.

The Healing PTSD stamp is available at local post offices and on USPS.com.

[h/t Task & Purpose]

You Can Use Your FSA or HSA Card to Pay for Medical Items on Amazon

Poike / iStock via Getty Images
Poike / iStock via Getty Images

Good news for Health Savings Account and Flexible Spending Account holders: You can use your HSA or FSA card to pay for eligible items on Amazon. According to Slick Deals, you can put balance towards dozens of health and hygiene items, including deodorant, eye drops, vitamins, lip balm, first aid kits, certain contraceptives, and more.

Not only does this let you pay for medical supplies with pre-tax money, but it also eliminates the hassle of having to go to the store to pick up essentials and non-essentials alike. Plus, it makes it a little easier to spend your remaining FSA funds as the deadline is December 31 (HSA funds, on the other hand, roll over to the following year).

Before ordering, just register your FSA or HSA card like you would for any card. Just be aware that some HSA cards must be registered as a credit card. In those cases, there aren’t automatic restrictions on what you can buy, so you’ll need to check that you’re only using your card for eligible items.

But what if you just ordered some sunscreen or reading glasses (both eligible products) using a regular credit card? Fortunately, you can apply for a reimbursement on past orders. Amazon suggests that you “contact your plan administrator or employer for more information on what items are eligible and how to provide appropriate documentation for reimbursement.”

Items will be listed as "FSA or HSA Eligible" on their individual product pages. And Amazon has a section where you can browse eligible items. A lot more items are covered by your FSA or HSA than you might expect, so to make your shopping a bit easier we broke it down into a list.

- Baby and Child Care
- Brace and Elastic Supports
- Children’s Cold and Allergy
- Cold and Allergy
- Ear Care
- Eye Care
- Family Planning and Tests
- First Aid
- Foot Health
- Home Medical
- Incontinence
- Medical Supplies and Equipment
- Mobility Aids
- Oral Care
- Pain Relief
- Skin Care

If you could use a little shopping inspiration, check out our list of 11 creative ways to spend your FSA money before the deadline, or 11 pain-relief devices you can buy with FSA money.

[h/t Slick Deals]

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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