Activated charcoal isn’t just for the ER anymore—these days, many athletes are using it as a natural detoxifier.

But is it safe to take regularly, and should it have a place in your medicine cabinet?

An old-fashioned medicinal remedy is making its way back to the mainstream, and you don’t need a doctor to get it. Activated charcoal—most commonly known as an emergency treatment for poison ingestion—is available over the counter at many health food stores. As many natural foodies and athletes turn to this black wonder powder to detoxify their bodies, we take a closer look at what other uses this age-old substance has, and whether it should be a staple in your medicine cabinet.

Activated charcoal is pure carbon that’s been specially processed (exposing wood or other materials to very high temperatures in an airless environment, treating or activating it, then reheating with oxidized gas to break it into a very fine powder) to make it highly adsorbent of particles and gases in the body’s digestive system. In simpler terms, it binds to toxic chemicals that might be present in the body and removes them (as opposed to absorbing, in which a fluid permeates a solid or liquid).

Because of its unique adsorbing properties, activated charcoal is often used in water- and air-purifying systems to capture unwanted impurities.

So, if activated charcoal detoxifies the body so well, should you use it regularly to cleanse your body of all the food and environmental toxins you encounter daily?

Not so fast, says functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and CHEK coach Michael Roesslein. “The only circumstances under which I would recommend someone take activated charcoal would be if they a) were exposed to acute food poisoning; b) if they’ve consumed a food they know will cause a reaction for them (for example, gluten or dairy in celiac or intolerant people); or c) if they are drinking alcohol and want to potentially absorb some of it. Outside of these circumstances, it’s not something I would recommend. Activated charcoal does not discriminate in any way; it binds to everything. This would include other supplements, as well as vitamins, medicines, and food nutrients. If overdone, you would be ridding your body of the things it needs along with the toxins. It is also extremely important to note that taking activated charcoal near the time you take your prescriptions will nullify the medicine. Timing is everything.”

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So while it’s great to have it on hand as a tooth whitener or for minor emergencies, getting carried away with using it as a regular detox might, in fact, rob your body of helpful nutrients you don’t want to be flushing out. Still, when used sparingly, activated charcoal has some surprisingly versatile household uses. Here are just a few:


Suffering from food poisoning or a wicked hangover from a night of heavy drinking? Taking a couple of capsules of activated charcoal will bind and eliminate most of those toxic chemicals, giving you immediate relief.

Gastric Relief

When you ingest foods like beans, the bacteria in your gut create byproducts like gas or even diarrhea. Activated charcoal binds to these bacteria to help give you quick relief. This needs to be done carefully, however, to avoid constipation.

Drug Detoxification*

Got a terrible head cold and accidentally popped too many Tylenol? Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is extremely hepatotoxic (toxic to your liver), so it’s a great idea to have some activated charcoal on hand in case of an accidental overdose.

Tooth Whitening

It may sound counterintuitive to brush your teeth with black powder, but perhaps the most fascinating use for activated charcoal is as a tooth whitener and stain remover. Simply open two capsules into a cup and add just enough water to make a paste. Coat your teeth and brush for three minutes, then rinse really well. You may want to wear shades so you’re not blinded by those pearly whites!

Insect Sting/Bite Relief

Rubbing charcoal paste on a sting or bite will draw out the toxins and help the wound heal quickly.

Looking for the best quality activated charcoal out there? According to most naturopaths, the absolute best is activated coconut charcoal, as it is the purest source. Simply search “coconut activated charcoal” on, or consult with the experts at your local health food store or pharmacy, to find a brand that’s right for you.

*If you or someone in your home has accidentally overdosed or been exposed to a chemical poisoning, call your local poison control center immediately. They may have you induce vomiting first before administering activated charcoal.

Check out some other old-fashioned medicinal remedies…

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