Charcoal has been popping up in everything from toothpaste to facial masks as of late (I've tried both). Ice cream also got the activated charcoal treatment a few months back, and it basically broke the internet. Activated charcoal is touted as a low-cost way to remove toxins from you body, inside and out. But more and more people are worried about the possible health effects of ingesting charcoal, from how it could affect birth control to its potential affect on your teeth (beyond just coating them in black goo). Critics say charcoals absorptive qualities could make birth control and other prescription medicines less effective, suggesting that jumping on the charcoal train might make you vulnerable to pregnancy. Is this something you should be worried about?
"While the risk is very low, charcoal could potentially decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills. In my opinion, it is not enough to avoid activated charcoal altogether," Dr. Will Cole, a functional medicine practitioner and health and wellness expert, tells Bustle in an email. "However, if you want to take all precautions and still enjoy black charcoal ice cream, just be sure to avoid consuming it at least two hours before and after taking your birth control," Dr. Cole says. "Every person is different though, so one person may be more sensitive to charcoal's affects than another."
"Activated charcoal is super absorbent, which is why it's used to counteract overdoses in hospitals. It basically absorbs what's in your stomach — including your prescription meds," a petitioner wrote on Care 2 Petitions. "I would totally nom on some of this black ice cream, but in the interest of informed consent, ice cream shops should let their customers know the risk."
However, charcoal can't differentiate between what it should absorb and what it shouldn't. "It’s not a very specific absorber of substances. It will absorb anything in your gut, good and bad," Linda Fan, an attending physician in the department of emergency medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, told US News & Report during the charcoal detox craze three years ago. “I wouldn’t use it without a medical professional’s advice.” That is to say, though, that eating black charcoal ice cream isn't the same as taking an activated charcoal tablet.
It's not just ice cream. Charcoal is showing up in all kinds of foods like hamburger buns, waffles, and lemonade. And, aside from possibly interfering with your medications, eating too much charcoal can prevent you from absorbing vitamins and nutrients that your body needs. Scott Gavura reported on Science-Based Medicine that "activated charcoal appears to bond vitamins like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), thiamine (vitamin B1) and biotin, so it has the potential to make food and drinks you consume actually less nutritious, not more."
Gavura also noted that detoxes are a bunch of bologna, and our bodies are able to remove toxins naturally. "Given many naturally-derived substances can be exceptionally toxic, we evolved a remarkable system of defenses and mechanisms to remove unwanted substances. The skin, kidneys, lymphatic system, our gastrointestinal system, and most importantly, the liver make up this sophisticated system," Gavura explained.
Charcoal toothpaste, however, is another story. I tried it because I, too, am susceptible to recommendations from celebs, and guess what? It did more harm than good. My teeth need fluoride or else the enamel wears off and it exposes me to a higher risk for cavities, because charcoal not only bonds to stains, but also to tooth enamel. When I last went to the dentist, he noticed how much enamel had eroded, and told me to stop using the charcoal immediately. And, the face mask? It hurt like hell to pull off, but it really didn't work better than any other face mask.
So, how worried should you be about charcoal interfering with your meds? That depends on how much you're eating. “As an absorbent in the intestinal system, you can imagine it can and does interact with medications," Pharmacist Roger Hollingsworth told the Daily Dot. "If it’s just one time, then it should be fine, but that being said, the bigger the dose, the more likely to have the negative absorption.”
So, maybe a charcoal ice cream or a charcoal-bun burger is fine two hours before or after you take a medication, but you probably don't want to make it part of your regular routine to eat a diet rich in charcoal. For the sake of your tooth enamel, if nothing else.