By Rustina, contributing writer
If you have kids that love minecraft, you probably have a jar of charcoal collecting dust somewhere…or maybe that is just me! They asked their Grandpa and Grandma for charcoal one year for Christmas. So now I have a whole 5 gallon bucket of charcoal laying around. I know activated charcoal has a lot of great uses, but what does that activated part even mean? What’s the difference? And of course, what other ways can I use it?
What is activated charcoal?
Sometimes it is hard to keep everything straight with similar terms like charcoal, coal, carbon, activated carbon, and activated charcoal.
Carbon is a basic element in our body, world, and solar system. In fact, it is the 4th most abundant element in the universe (1)! Coal is the fossilized and then compressed remains of plant and animal matter (leaves, stems, bones, cartilage, etc). Carbon sinks form In these pockets of matter within rock layers. In those carbon sinks, after millions of years under intense pressure and heat, coal forms. Coal is a rock that is black or brown and made mostly of carbon and is combustible. There are different forms that the carbon can create, we call these carbon allotropes. Diamonds and graphite are examples of carbon allotropes that form within these carbon sinks.
Charcoal differs from coal. It is formed through a chemical change – the heat from fire vs the heat from intense pressure within the Earth’s layers. To become charcoal, wood or similar material like coconut shells or hardwood must be heated with minimal oxygen (inside a pot or barrel with loose lid) and high heat around the base. When it is burned hot enough with such little oxygen, the water and organic material is removed. This allows it to heat and burn with less smoke also. This can be used for fuel such as cooking on a grill or campfire set up.
To make it activated charcoal, use 3 parts lemon juice (there are other options but lemon juice is the most natural choice) to 1 part water and soak the smashed up charcoal (preferably made from coconut shells or hardwoods) for 24 hours. Then rinse with fresh, filtered water, pour out onto a dehydrator tray to dry, powdering when it is all done. The understanding is that the lemon juice expands the surface area allowing it to then absorb more readily (2).
Benefits of using activated charcoal
Activated charcoal has been used in store bought and DIY air filters and water filters for a long time. It is great for removing sediment, chemicals, and gasses. It doesn’t attract all things like iron, acids, alcohol, or metals (3).
Activated charcoal is unique because it adsorbs (yes, with a D). This is the ability to absorb and attract other substances into its surface and trap them there (7). This is what makes activated charcoal so great for cases of food and other poisonings.
Part of the adsorbent power is what helps it not only soak up the toxins it comes in contact with, but also lets it draw it out through pores or injuries to the skin. This makes it great for facial masks to reduce acne causing clogs and improving skin health. It also helps draw out toxins from insect bites, stings, or other cuts. Activated charcoal can help soothe irritated skin from bug bites and acne including mask-induced issues.
May Support Oral Health
Activated charcoal has been used by many to help whiten teeth. Many companies have toothpaste or powders made with activated charcoal for that reason. Much like the use of air filters, activated charcoal in oral care freshens breath by removing odor causing gasses.
May Support Blood and Kidney Health
Much like the water filters, activated charcoal may benefit kidney health by reducing toxins and other matter in the blood. Some studies look promising that it could help protect kidneys and reduce damage (note – no human studies yet).
Activated charcoal is an antioxidant. That means it helps capture and reduce free radicals from causing damage in the body (8).
May Reduce Cholesterol
Those who have cholesterol concerns may be interested to hear that activated charcoal has been associated with the ability to reduce plasma cholesterol and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol while increasing HDL (the “good”) cholesterol (9). Although stable and natural occurring amounts of cholesterol are important, just a reminder that our bodies do need cholesterol – it is actually an important part of processes like vitamin D and hormones!
May Help Reduce Mold Toxicity
Activated charcoal may even be a plausible help to detox mold from the body (10). Although more research is needed to learn more, with the rising health concerns of mold exposure, these ideas are a great step in the right direction!
- If taken internally, drink plenty of water during and afterwards (preferably for at least 3 days). The activated charcoal will be absorbing water in your body as well so extra is needed during its use.
- If taking other medicines or even supplements, wait until 3 hours before or 3 hours after to reduce the activated charcoal from adsorbing those as well!
- Since it is in powdered form, aspiration is a concern. Be sure to take it as a capsule or fully mixed with water to reduce chances of inhaling powder.
- Depending on the toxins or materials ingested (or if store bought additives like sorbitol) can cause the activated charcoal to set off vomiting or other gastric upsets (S under Adverse Effects and Contraindications).
Store in an airtight container (vacuum sealed if possible or for more long term). Keep in a cool, dry location. I highly recommend storing it in a higher location. My youngest (4 at the time) loved getting into it and “painting” himself with it. I came home from karate class one time to a darling little mess saying he was Darth Vader now 😅. He (and the rest of us) thankfully are not at all sensitive to having the salve on longer than 10-15 minutes. Some people react to having it on longer (redness that goes away in time).
How to use activated charcoal
- As a paste – mix with a small amount of water (until desired consistency is reached) to make a paste and apply topically to draw out toxins in the skin.
- A poultice with herbs and minimal water or oils in a cotton pouch or wrap held to a troubling spot on your body such as a rash, sting, sliver, or on the liver. This goes well with Castor Oil Packs.
- A salve on bites, rashes, stings, or cuts (try this DIY or Buy Earthley’s Black Drawing Salve).
- Capsules (You can take 1-2 of Earthley’s Activated Charcoal Capsules or a water mix using dosing guidelines that can be found here under Administration).
- Facial soaps and scrubs (Try Earthley’s Charcoal Facial Bar or Earthley’s Coffee Scrub).
For more information on determining if the case of ingested poison may be a good fit for activated charcoal, this article has a flow chart and tips.
How to Wash Off Activated Charcoal
It can be tricky to clean off activated charcoal, especially as a salve with the added wax. Using a castile or bar soap works best. Using pump soap from a store usually won’t cut it for me. I use my favorite soap bar and rub it across the skin or clothing item. Scrub and rinse. Repeat, if needed. So far, I haven’t had anything stay stained yet 🤞
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and nothing in this post is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure anything. If you have questions, please do your own research or seek advice from a health professional.