Consuming charcoal can seem like a strange idea to many. Indeed, why would you want to put that black powder into your body? In fact, charcoal pills have been a medical staple in lots of countries for decades: they are used to treat poisonings, but that's not all that they are capable of.
A word on adsorbtion
First of all, activated charcoal differs greatly from the coals in your barbecue: it is obtained through a complex process of heating primary matter (usually peat and coconut shells) to 1000°C without oxygen. The resulting charcoal is not only sterile and absolutely safe for you: it is filled with myriads of microscopic pores. The surface area of just one gram can reach 500 square meters! And therein lies its usefulness.
Thanks to all those pores, activated charcoal attracts all sorts of tiny particles that stick to its surface. You will frequently read that charcoal “absorbs” stuff, but it is wrong – it ADSORBS. The difference between absorbtion and adsorbtion is simple: if you dissove something in a liquid (say, water or blood), then it is absorbed. But when particles adhere to the surface of something, they are adsorbed.
Now that we’ve learned a bit of science behind charcoal, let us look at what you can do with it.
Charcoal is used at many hospitals to treat even serious poisoning, but it must be administered directly into the stomach mixed with water – and for an adult, it takes 50-100g of charcoal! Those pills or capsules you buy at the pharmacy cannot really be used to treat a dangerous poisoning, but they can be of great help if you get a stomach ache after eating something. Please note that charcoal will bind many organic compounds, such as pesticides and toxins often found in low-quality alcohol, but it won’t adsorb bacteria or viruses! Take at least 5-6 pills within 30 min after you start feeling sick and make sure to drink lots of water, since charcoal has a dehydrating effect.
Purify your skin
While activated charcoal is great for adsorbing undesired particles inside your body, it can do the same outside, too! Charcoal masks are a safe way to clean the pores on your face. First, make sure to open the pores by washing your face with hot water or make a facial steam bath by filling a bowl with hot water (with some essential oils or herbs, if you can), covering your head and the bowl with a towel and keeping your face over the steam for a few minutes. For the mask itself, either open a cople of capsules or grind two charcoal pills into powder and mix the charcoal with aloe gel. Keep the mask on your face for a few minutes and rinse thoroughly.
Reduce bloating and gas (or perhaps not)
Activated charcoal is often touted as a great way to rid oneself of flatulence (since it presumably binds chemical compounds that cause gas), but in fact, not all research supports it. Some studies seem to indicate that consumption of charcoal makes no difference in terms of bloating, while others (like this one) suggest that it does indeed help reduce gas regardless of the person’s diet.
Apart from these three main uses, you’ll often encounter advice to use charcoal to whiten your teeth, detox the whole body, improve your heart health… So far, there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of these uses whatsoever. You can certainly try them – remember, charcoal is safe, as long as you hydrate well – but don’t get disappointed if it doesn’t work!