Literatus: Is activated charcoal really ‘activated?’


CHEMICALLY, all charcoals are the same. They are powdered forms of carbon. Charcoals are residues of burned organic materials with—as we experience in our backyard grilling activities—energy contents making them adequate for cooking meat.

However, why is it that we encounter the term “activated charcoal” in our medicine or in some cosmetic products? What is the difference if we simply take the charcoal for our grills, grind it into powder, and take it in doses to replace the meds or apply it for personal care? Worse, are not these ingredients simply picked up from charcoal for grilling and sold for a larger profit?

The process of activation pertains simply to heating the charcoal from coal, coconut shells or wood pulp at a very high temperature in the absence of air, so that it changes its physical structure. The resultant fine carbon powder acquires a larger surface area than ordinary charcoal, which are often in solid non-powder forms. The larger the surface area is, the larger the area for toxins to stick to the powder surfaces. Thus, an activated charcoal can also entrap chemicals (e.g. overdosed medication) and odorous substances on the feet or in the ref. This makes activated charcoal beneficial in water filtration. It cuts down waste products excreted in the body, making it a useful support for kidney function especially in people with kidney disease. That also means it can prevent the absorption of some medications.

However, activated charcoal has limited effect on clearing stomach acid, certain chemicals (e.g. iron or lithium), and certain compounds (e.g. alcohols, alkali or gasoline).

Moreover, while reputed to help in easing gas pain, bloating and indigestion, research seemed to disagree. In fact, it can be nauseous to some people, causing them to vomit or experience a worsening upset stomach. Research also disagrees on claims of its effect in whitening the teeth (instead the powders can lodge between your teeth) or in reducing bile acid during pregnancy (cholestasis).

Mixed results also came up in its effect on bad cholesterol absorption from the gastrointestinal tract, in drying up ulcers, bedsores and acne, or in deodorizing shoes, feet and the body.

In the issue of safety, activated charcoal can have adverse effects when used beyond a short period. It can cause constipation, blockages and even dehydration.

So is activated charcoal really activated? It is so only in the sense of being subjected to higher temperature compared to ordinary charcoal to purify carbon chemically. Otherwise, any carbon element is just like any carbon element differing only in the contaminant substances mixed with it in the product of sustained combustion.


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