How much activated charcoal can you eat?

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. It’s the porousness that allows activated charcoal to trap toxins and chemicals, preventing their absorption in the body. That’s why activated charcoal is used for everything from filtering water to treating poisoning and overdoses.

Activated charcoal has become popular in recent years for body cleansing and detoxification. Proponents claim it can remove toxins, improve gut health, reduce gas and bloating, lower cholesterol levels, prevent hangovers and decrease headache pain.

However, there’s no scientific evidence to support using activated charcoal as a daily detox or cleanse. Your liver and kidneys already detoxify your body. What’s more, activated charcoal can bind to certain vitamins and minerals, preventing their absorption and making you deficient over time.

That said, activated charcoal does have proven medical uses. For instance, it’s the first line of defense for certain types of poisoning. It can absorb toxins until your body can eliminate them naturally. But you should only take activated charcoal at the recommendation of a healthcare professional.

How does activated charcoal work?

Activated charcoal works through the chemical process of adsorption. When administered correctly, activated charcoal binds to certain poisons, toxins or chemicals in the stomach and intestines before they’re absorbed into the bloodstream. This prevents their toxic effects.

Activated charcoal’s porous structure gives it an incredibly large surface area, allowing many toxins to bind to the surface. The toxins stick to the charcoal like flies to flypaper.

Then you eliminate the charcoal naturally through your stool. This carries the toxins bound to the charcoal out of your body so they don’t get absorbed.

It’s important to note that activated charcoal only works on toxins or chemicals that bind to it. It does not absorb all poisons or toxins.

Some substances that bind to activated charcoal include:

  • Alcohols
  • Chlorine
  • Pesticides
  • Mercury
  • Fertilizers
  • Aspirin
  • Cocaine
  • Morphine

But activated charcoal does not effectively trap metals like iron, lithium, potassium, and acids like hydrofluoric acid or nitric acid.

In addition, activated charcoal cannot absorb toxins or chemicals that have already been absorbed into your bloodstream. At that point, it can only help eliminate the toxin through your stool.

When should you take activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal has legitimate medical uses. However, there is no evidence to support taking it routinely as part of a detox.

Here are some proven benefits of activated charcoal in certain circumstances:

  • Poisonings: Activated charcoal is the first line of defense for poisons that bind to it. Examples are suicide attempts with aspirin, Tylenol or narcotics.
  • Toxin exposure: If you swallow household, industrial or agriculture toxins such as bleach, pesticides, paint or fertilizer, activated charcoal helps prevent their absorption.
  • Drug overdose: Activated charcoal is used in ERs to treat drug overdoses of medications that bind to it.
  • Snake and spider bites: Some animal venoms and toxins can be absorbed by activated charcoal.
  • Gas and bloating: Activated charcoal appears to help relieve gas and bloating, though the evidence is limited.

In addition, a 2016 study found that activated charcoal may help reduce bile acid diarrhea.

So talk to your doctor before taking activated charcoal. Don’t use it routinely as a supplement without medical supervision.

Incorrect use can be ineffective, interact with medications and cause complications like intestinal blockages.

How much activated charcoal should you take?

For poisoning or toxin exposure, the general dosing guidelines are:

  • Adults: 25–100 grams at first, with additional doses of 25 to 50 grams every 2 to 4 hours.
  • Children: 10–25 grams at first, with additional doses of 10–25 grams every 2 to 4 hours.

Activated charcoal is given until the toxins are flushed from your body.

For other uses, the dosage varies. Always follow product instructions and speak with your doctor.

Keep in mind that higher doses can lead to constipation and intestinal blockage in rare cases.

Maximum daily doses are:

  • Adults: Up to 120 grams per day.
  • Children: Up to 90 grams per day.

Split total daily dosing into 3 to 4 doses throughout the day.

Be sure to drink plenty of water to avoid constipation when taking activated charcoal.

Is activated charcoal safe?

Activated charcoal is considered safe in most cases. But it should only be used for proven medicinal purposes.

Potential side effects include:

  • Black stools
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Intestinal blockage

More serious complications with high doses of activated charcoal include:

  • Intestinal perforation
  • Slowed intestinal transit time – can worsen ileus or pseudo-obstruction
  • Aspiration pneumonia (inhaling charcoal into lungs)

In addition, activated charcoal can interfere with normal nutrient absorption and cause nutritional deficiencies with long-term use.

It also binds to some common medications, making them less effective.

Drugs that should not be taken with activated charcoal include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Anti-arrhythmics
  • Anti-seizure
  • Anti-diabetics
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Antidepressants
  • Thyroid hormones

Tell your doctor if you take any medication before using activated charcoal. Many drugs may need a dose adjustment or long gap between doses if given with charcoal.

Does activated charcoal detox your body?

There’s no scientific evidence that activated charcoal removes toxins from your body or offers general health benefits.

Your liver and kidneys already detoxify your body from chemicals, toxins, viruses, bacteria, allergens and byproducts of metabolism.

What’s more, activated charcoal is not selective. It can’t differentiate between toxins and important nutrients.

Over time, activated charcoal can make you deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. This includes vitamin C, calcium and iron.

Activated charcoal may have a role in reducing symptoms of gas and bloating. But other over-the-counter remedies can also treat gas, without the risks of nutritional deficiencies.

Some alternative medicine practitioners recommend doing a periodic “detox cleanse” using activated charcoal to eliminate toxins. But this has no proven benefits unless you’ve been exposed to a toxin or poison.

Your body simply does not store toxins from the environment that can be flushed out by activated charcoal. And there’s no science showing that occasional use of activated charcoal improves health.

Should you take activated charcoal as supplement?

There is no evidence that activated charcoal offers benefits as a daily supplement. And there are some risks:

  • It reduces absorption of important nutrients, which can lead to deficiencies over time.
  • It binds to many common medications, making them less effective.
  • In rare cases, large doses cause intestinal blockage.

In addition, activated charcoal likely offers no cleansing or detox benefit if you’re healthy with no existing toxin exposure.

For these reasons, activated charcoal supplements cannot be recommended for daily use.

Talk to your doctor before taking activated charcoal supplements regularly. Make sure to avoid medications that may interact.

Only use activated charcoal temporarily for proven medicinal uses like food poisoning, toxin exposure or drug overdose.

What foods contain activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is not present in whole foods. However, some activated charcoal products contain it as an ingredient. These include:

  • Juices
  • Smoothies
  • Lemonades
  • Ice cream
  • Energy bars
  • Desserts
  • Snack foods

Food grade activated charcoal is made from coconut shells or other natural sources. Manufacturers claim the charcoal provides detox and health benefits.

But there’s no evidence that trace amounts of activated charcoal in foods offer any benefits. And it may reduce absorption of important nutrients.

What’s more, activated charcoal in food products contains large amounts of silicon dioxide as an anti-caking agent. This additive is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, but there are concerns that inhaling silicon dioxide nanoparticles may be harmful.

Overall, activated charcoal foods and drinks remain untested. There’s no proof they detoxify your body or offer health benefits. Given the potential risks, it may be best to avoid activated charcoal products.

What about brushing your teeth with activated charcoal?

Some natural toothpastes and powders contain activated charcoal.

Proponents claim that activated charcoal whitens teeth, removes stains, prevents cavities, and eliminates toxins from the mouth.

However, there is no scientific evidence to support using activated charcoal for oral health. And some dental organizations warn about potential harms:

  • May cause abrasion and wear down tooth enamel
  • Not proven to whiten better than regular toothpaste
  • Can get into cracks in teeth, causing decay
  • May interact with other medications

The ADA recommends avoiding activated charcoal tooth products until more research is done on effectiveness and safety.

Overall, activated charcoal toothpaste is not scientifically proven to whiten teeth or benefit oral health. And there are some potential risks. Regular fluoride toothpaste remains the best choice for protecting your teeth.


Activated charcoal is proven to bind to some toxins and chemicals, preventing poisoning and overdose death. It’s routinely used in emergency rooms for this purpose.

However, there is no scientific basis for using activated charcoal as a daily detox, cleanse or supplement.

Your liver and kidneys already detoxify your body from chemicals and toxins. Activated charcoal may become harmful with long-term use.

Talk to your doctor before taking activated charcoal supplements. Make sure to avoid any interactions with medications.

Only use activated charcoal temporarily for proven poisonings and toxin exposures. Routine use for undefined detoxing is not recommended.

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