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What does activated charcoal do — and does it really work?

A few years ago, people decided to jump on activated charcoal, birthing a wellness movement with a dizzying array of products bearing the substance’s Instagram-worthy, matte black hue — smoothies, lattes, face masks, even toothpaste. Those who swear by activated charcoal cite its purported detoxifying properties, which they say enable it to cure hangovers, clear acne, and whiten teeth, for instance. But does activated charcoal live up to the hype? Mic asked experts to evaluate the more popular claims about this buzzy wellness ingredient.

Before we dive in: What is activated charcoal?

After you heat off the water and other components from wood or other organic matter, you get charcoal, according to VICE. Additional processing yields activated charcoal — tiny, porous, “almost egg crate-like structures,” Adam Friedman, a professor of dermatology at George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, tells Mic. These pores vastly increase the surface area of activated charcoal. This combination of attributes — its miniscule size and large surface area — makes activated charcoal particles “super sticky,” Friedman says. Activated charcoal “can bind to many, many things,” which is why it’s often used to soak up poison or dangerously high doses of drugs from the stomach, so it doesn’t enter the bloodstream.

But Friedman notes that although activated charcoal is often marketed for its detox abilities, “it will bind up everything,” toxic or not. And while commonly likened to a magnet, it doesn’t draw everything toward it, only substances in very close proximity to it.

As it turns out, activated charcoal isn’t new. The substance rose in popularity in the 19th century as a poisoning treatment, according to Healthline. It reached fad status back then, too, when it was marketed as “a universal antidote,” says Stephen Thornton, medical director for the University of Kansas Health System Poison Control Center, similar to how it is today.

Can activated charcoal cure my hangover?

The short answer: No. Just because ER doctors use activated charcoal to soak up deadly doses of drugs from the stomach doesn’t mean it will do the same for the alcohol in your system. For starters, it doesn’t bind or soak up alcohol as well, which is why it isn’t used for alcohol poisoning, Thornton explains.

Even if activated charcoal did a good job at sopping up alcohol, it would stay in your GI tract, which, by the time you’re hungover, the alcohol would have already passed through, getting absorbed into your bloodstream and traveling elsewhere in your body. The toxins that make you feel like you got by hit by a train after one too many margaritas are theorized to be in the brain; they’re not necessarily coming in contact with the gut, Thornton says. Remember, activated charcoal can absorb a ton of things, but only it comes in contact with them. In other words, “by the time you have a hangover, the horse is kind out of the barn, and the damage is done,” Thornton says.

Just because ER doctors use activated charcoal to soak up deadly doses of drugs from the stomach doesn’t mean it will do the same for the alcohol in your system.

Plus, one of the most common side effects of ingesting activated charcoal is vomiting, Thornton adds, which you might not want to do if you’ve already spent all morning bent over your toilet. When it comes to hangovers, old fashioned, over-the-counter pain meds and hydration can’t hurt, but ultimately, time is really the only cure, Thornton says.

The only way activated charcoal could prevent a hangover is if you took it while drinking, so that it absorbs some of the alcohol, which would have the same effect as drinking less, he notes. In other words, you’d basically be wasting perfectly good alcohol. If you really want to prevent a hangover, you might as well just not overindulge.

Can activated charcoal improve my skin?

“The reality is, we just don’t know because we have no data from a skincare perspective,” Friedman says. But based on what we know about how activated charcoal works, it probably won’t do much. The rationale behind using activated charcoal in skincare products is that it’ll suck up oil, dirt, and debris from skin, and slough them off when you wash it off, like how adding activated charcoal powder in water with some sort of dye renders the solution clear. The problem is, this process takes a while, much longer than people typically leave on skincare products before rinsing them off, Friedman says.

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And again, since activated charcoal doesn’t discriminate, it may even bind to the fats that cement the top layer of the skin, diminishing your skin’s support structure, he adds. This could worsen inflammatory skin diseases like acne and eczema, in which the skin barrier is already dysfunctional. Friedman notes, though, that activated charcoal cream may offer a gentler alternative to a drying, irritating astringent if you have very oily skin.

Can activated charcoal whiten my teeth?

First, some background on how conventional whitening toothpastes work: These products typically contain some kind of mild abrasive, strong enough to remove stains from the surface of the tooth, but not enough to damage it, says Edmond R. Hewlett, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry. Some toothpaste brands claim activated charcoal powder can do the same.

But the little research that exists on charcoal toothpaste suggests it doesn’t perform as well as conventional whitening toothpastes. In the only study Hewlett has seen that compares charcoal toothpastes to conventional whitening toothpastes, a few of the abrasives in conventional products were better than activated charcoal at removing black tea stains from cow incisors.

In fact, charcoal toothpaste may even harm your teeth. Since there are no standards dictating the source of the activated charcoal powder, for instance, or the size of the particles, charcoal toothpaste “could be more abrasive than is healthy for the tooth,” Hewlett says. Plus, we still don’t know the long-term effects of activated charcoal on fillings.

Charcoal toothpastes are also “far less likely” to contain ingredients, such as fluoride, that strengthen the tooth enamel and prevent cavities. Even if you use one of the few charcoal toothpastes that do have fluoride, remember that activated charcoal soaks up everything —meaning it might remove the fluoride, too.

And while many charcoal toothpastes are marketed as detoxifying, activated charcoal won’t reduce your risk of cavities or gum disease, Hewlett says. “There’s absolutely no evidence to support that.” Sure, it might freshen your breath, but it won’t do anything about the dry mouth, infections, or other factors that, according to Mayo Clinic, may be causing your bad breath.

As with many trendy wellness ingredients, much of the marketing for activated charcoal centers on how it’s “natural” and “organic,” buzzwords consumers often find irresistible. These descriptors “make it sound like not only a good alternative, but a healthier alternative, than traditional products on the market,” Hewlett says. At least when it comes to its trendier uses, activated charcoal probably does little, if anything, to help, and it may even cause harm.