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Charcoal: It’s the New Black


  • Charcoal is a new trend in food and cosmetics.
  • It is made by heating plant-based products to extremely high temperatures.
  • Home-use charcoal is not regulated or monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Have you seen the new trend in food and cosmetics for 2017? It’s charcoal… and we’re not talking about the briquettes from your backyard grill or the lumps of coal in your Christmas stocking. This “trendy” charcoal, sometimes called activated charcoal, is popping up in foods from ice cream to infused drinks and cosmetics from facial masks to toothpaste. Activated charcoal is typically made by heating peat, wood, petroleum, coconut shells, or other plant-based material at extremely high temperatures. This process “activates” the charcoal, removes impurities, and creates extra space, like pores, resulting in a fluffy black powder. In theory, these extra spaces absorb or trap toxins to make them less potent or dangerous. However, this has not been proven for all of the ways that activated charcoal is being used today.


For decades, charcoal was the “go-to” treatment in the emergency department (ED) for poisonings. Recently, it’s use in the ED has declined as research studies have shown it may not work as well as we thought.  But, charcoal is making a comeback among the general public as a trendy product for use as a detoxifier. Many people are now buying activated charcoal powder or capsules at their local health food store or online. It is being used at home for accidental or intentional poisonings, food poisoning, and other general body detox treatments.

There are concerns with this kind of charcoal use:

  1. The safety, efficacy, and purity of home-use charcoal is not regulated or monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  2. Activated charcoal is not a cure-all for poisonings. In fact, there are no clinical studies that show any benefit of activated charcoal in a single dose. If a poisoning is severe enough to require treatment with activated charcoal, the person will need to be monitored in a hospital instead of at home.
  3. Charcoal can bind to your prescribed medications and vitamins and prevent their absorption for up to several hours, making them less effective. It may also bind to the nutrients in the foods we eat.
  4. If a person is already experiencing symptoms from a poisoning, such as drowsiness, charcoal can put them at risk for serious complications such as aspiration (inhaling the powder into the lungs).


Foods have never looked so spooky or goth before! Pictures of jet-black foods and beverages have been circulating all over the internet. Their dark appearance is not from food coloring; these trendy treats are made with activated charcoal. You can find “charcoal-infused” products in stores, local restaurants, and food blogs. A small amount of charcoal in foods is not likely to cause concern, but the same risks as above may apply.


Walk down the cosmetic aisle and you will see all kinds of soaps, facial masks, cleansers, and creams with charcoal. Slathering on a black facial cream may startle your family, but careful use of activated charcoal in cosmetics is not likely to cause serious effects. As with all topical products, there may be a risk of skin sensitivity or allergic reaction. Charcoal is also showing up in dental products like toothpaste which may bind to tarter and help prevent staining from coffee and red wine. But, some dentists warn it may reduce the good bacteria present in our mouth needed for digestion.


Trends come and go and charcoal seems to be the new hot trend. Much of the existing research does not show how effective charcoal is in home-use products, but use in moderation is not likely to be dangerous. However, we do not recommend to self-treat a poisoning or overdose with over-the-counter activated charcoal. In this situation, the Missouri Poison Center can provide patient-specific recommendations that may or may not involve use of activated charcoal. If activated charcoal is needed, the patient will be referred for treatment in the hospital.

At the poison center, we believe the best trends are self-awareness and education. If you have questions or concerns about charcoal use please contact the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.



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