Activated Charcoal [Uses + Benefits]

Activated Charcoal: An Overview

Charcoal has been part of human life since ancient times, though the first recorded use was in 3750 B.C. Activated charcoal (also known as activated carbon), however, was only officially discovered in 1822 - and took the legendary attributes of charcoal to a whole new level.

Activated charcoal (not to be confused with the briquettes in your grill) has a lengthy list of useful applications, such as:

  • Air purification
  • Water filtration (removes 100% of fluoride)
  • Teeth whitening
  • Decaffeination
  • Potential hangover remedy
  • Sewage treatment
  • Metal extraction/purification
  • Purifying alcoholic beverages
  • Groundwater remediation

Activated carbon is on the WHO's List of Essential Medicines, a comprehensive guidebook containing the safest and most effective medicines needed in a health system. 

Activated Hemp Charcoal

Charcoal vs. Activated Charcoal

Charcoal and activated charcoal are similar but have fundamental differences. Both activated and regular charcoal come from burning organic materials such as wood, coal, fruit stones (like olive pits), bamboo, coconut husks (coco coir), lignite, willow peat, petroleum - and most recently, hemp!

The distinguishing factor is that activated charcoal requires substantially higher temperatures to create. These high temperatures activate the carbon atoms and burn off all remaining molecules that remain intact in the source material. Sometimes, activated carbon is 'impregnated' with other chemicals/elements to optimize the beneficial effects of the carbon while creating a synergy with the added compounds.

Activated charcoal is pure carbon – but then again, so are diamonds and graphite. The difference lies in the preparation.

How does activated charcoal work?

One way to understand how it works is by imagining carbon (the sixth element on the periodic table) as a skeleton, and all the other parts of the material (whether it's wood, peat, hemp, etc.) as the different parts of the body. By melting off everything and leaving the skeleton exposed, there becomes an abundance of 'connection sites' if you will; open slots that were previously occupied by other elements.

Countless numbers of pores open on the molecular level, giving one teaspoon of activated carbon more surface area than a football field. Observe the porous nature of activated charcoal in this image, obtained using a scanning electron microscope.

A relevant term to know is adsorption, which is distinct from absorption. Absorption is the process of a fluid being dissolved by a liquid or solid (think of a sponge soaking up water). Adsorption is when molecules, ions, or atoms adhere to the surface of the adsorbent (think of a magnet and iron filings). The pores of activated charcoal carry negative electrical charges, causing it to attract positively charged molecules - such as heavy metals, drugs, and other toxins.

Uses and Benefits of Activated Carbon

Activated Charcoal Detox

In modern culture, a few personal uses for activated charcoal have become increasingly mainstream, such as for dental hygiene and as a detox supplement/hangover cure.

While there is no hard science on using activated charcoal as a teeth whitener, experts recommend limiting this practice to 2-3 times a week, as the carbon is abrasive and could mimic sandpaper on enamel. Of course, there are other potential benefits to oral health, thanks to the activated carbon's microbe-absorbing actions.

Taken internally, activated carbon has a lot of exciting effects. It can help eliminate urea-derived toxins, byproducts of consuming protein that can become harmful (for example when a person eats excessive animal proteins).

Since the kidneys are responsible for filtering urea, elevated levels can cause kidney damage and disease. This study on rats demonstrated enhanced kidney function in rats with chronic renal failure, thanks to the addition of activated charcoal to their diets (results that have been replicated in human trials).

Individuals suffering from Trimethylaminuria (TMAU) will be delighted to know that activated charcoal could be a powerful remedy. In people suffering from TMAU, an enzyme deficiency causes fishy-smelling trimethylamine (TMA) to build up and spill over into breath, sweat, and urine, ultimately causing a 'fishy' body odor. In this study, taking activated charcoal for 10 days reduced TMA to levels found in healthy adults.

Activated charcoal may have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels, and also seems helpful in reducing gas and diarrhea. There is even reason to believe that activated charcoal could help with heavy metal toxicity!

Although activated charcoal doesn't adsorb ethanol (or affect blood alcohol levels), enthusiasts of carbon as a hangover cure speculate that it adsorbs many of the alcoholic beverages' impurities while passing through the digestive tract. Also, it could potentially capture toxic byproducts of drinking alcohol, like acetaldehyde.

The former theory isn't completely ungrounded, as activated carbon is very popular in the spirits industry. Its efficacy in purifying distilled beverages, increasing their purity and quality without affecting alcohol levels, seems to confirm all that we just discussed. 

Activated Hemp Carbon

Many proponents of activated charcoal as a detox supplement repeat the myth that simply taking this black powder with low-quality food, coffee, or alcohol will somehow adsorb all the impurities and toxins, leaving your body with only the good parts of the drink/meal. Thinking about this logic for a moment, it becomes easy to see the fallacy - the activated charcoal is going to attract the first things it comes into contact with - whether that's vitamins and minerals, or pesticides and heavy metals. 

Instead of taking this popular approach to using activated charcoal, we recommend looking at it as a protocol to be done every week or two. Pick a day to try fasting, and make that day be when you supplement with this toxin-attracting substance. Fasting tends to free up energy in your body - everything will 'get moving,' and this can present an opportune time to detox, and reinvigorate your body during an intermittent fasting schedule. 

Internal use isn't the only way you can benefit from activated carbon – topical use also has many merits. Activated charcoal is a popular ingredient in cosmetics thank to its purifying capabilities, and makes for a hip and effective deodorant (whether underarm or in shoes).

The only adverse reactions reported from taking activated charcoal are constipation (usually when dehydrated – drink extra water when taking activated carbon) and black-colored stools.

The History of Activated Charcoal

The first medicinal use of charcoal was recorded in 1500B.C. by the ancient Egyptians to treat festering wounds and digestive disturbances. A little over a thousand years later, in 400B.C., there are the earliest remnants of charcoal used for water filtration.

These records exist in many cultures; it became commonplace for sailors (including Christopher Columbus) to char the inside of water barrels to keep the water pure on long voyages. Hippocrates used charcoal to treat dizziness, nervous system disorders, and iron deficiency - even good ol' Pliney the Elder (A.D. 23-79) wrote of his fascination with charcoal:

"So true is it that things which are despised even, and looked upon as so utterly destitute of all virtues, have still their own remedial properties, charcoal and ash, for example."

The process of creating activated charcoal was not documented until 1822, when the technique was outlined by chemist Antoine Bussy. However, activated charcoal has likely been in use for thousands of years, as the Egyptians used it for smelting bronze as early as 3,750B.C. - a process which requires temperatures around 900°C/1,600°F, the same temperatures required to create activated carbon.

In WWI, activated carbon was used in American soldier's gas masks to avoid asphyxiation by noxious fumes. Today, activated charcoal is used widely in industries like sugar refining, dry cleaning, pharmaceuticals, alcoholic beverage production, and fat/oil removal. However, the most prominent use remains municipal water purification.

Hemp Activated Carbon

Hemp Black – Activated Carbon for a Sustainable Future

Eco6  (developed by our sister company Hemp Black) is the result of putting hemp fibers through a self-sustaining, eco-friendly method of pyrolysis (from Greek pyro 'fire' and lysis 'separating'). Like activated carbon from other sources, Hemp Black has three main properties:

  • Has a massive surface area to volume ratio
  • Electrical conductivity
  • Can be used as a black dye

Hemp Black has the most sustainable life cycle analysis compared to other forms of activated carbon – take coconut husks, for example. Coconuts are usually shipped all over the world to be processed, whereas with Hemp Black, there is only a short distance from field to char at our sister facilities on Georgetown, Kentucky.

What's more is that Hemp Black has been awarded the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Platinum Level Material Health Certificate. A platinum ranking, the highest achievable, confirms that the material does not contain, at any dose, any components that have not been optimized for human and environmental health during any intended, or unintended, use.

Hemp Black is the only activated charcoal supplement to be awarded this degree of certification. When we take this beautiful product and put it into capsules, we ensure all of it is triple lab tested for quality and purity. And of course, 100% of the hemp used for our activated carbon is grown in the U.S.!

Hemp Black activated carbon

Switching to activated charcoal from hemp is just one more way to reduce your carbon footprint on the planet. Imagine yourself wearing shorts made from hemp, with the designs on it printed using Hemp Black ink, relaxing in a hammock made from hemp fibers, reading a book on bioremediation printed on hemp paper. The slowly drying mud mask on your face is infused with Hemp Black, pulling all the toxins from your delicate pores...

Hemp has more versatility than you can shake a stick at. Using it to make activated charcoal is a state-of-the-art addition to this millennia-old list of uses.

Activated Hemp Charcoal 60 count

Note of caution: Toxicology studies show activated charcoal does not interfere with sleep, appetite or well-being. However, everyone responds differently to different doses, and the high adsorption potential of activated charcoal may reduce effectiveness of certain medications. As with any supplement, consult your healthcare provider before use, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing or taking medication. May cause harmless darkening of stools. At high doses, may cause constipation.