Activated charcoal is one of the latest trends sweeping the beauty and food industry, infiltrating everything from face masks to ice creams. This is thanks largely to the various health and wellness benefits associated with the stuff. Given that some of the benefits appear almost pseudo-medicinal, it has raised the question of whether activated charcoal interferes with medication, so here's what the experts have to say.
In July 2015, the Telegraph quoted James Kerr, an A&E registrar, who spoke about activated charcoal during a Channel 4 documentary. "The concern is that it might actually bind onto some medications people will have taken and will do them some harm by not letting those medications be absorbed as they should be," he is quoted as saying. At the time, the NHS stated something similar, according to the Telegraph, saying "some people must never take [activated charcoal]" due to the fact that it can interact with other medications and prevent them from working as they should.
Explaining in more detail the effect of using activated charcoal, Clinical Lead at Treated.com Dr Daniel Atkinson tells Bustle:
"Taking charcoal within 10 minutes of your medication will have more of an impact on whether [the medication] is absorbed by your bloodstream. You should consider this too if you use oral contraception as your birth control method."
And despite what you might think, Dr Atkinson explains that the amount of activated charcoal you're using doesn't necessarily make much of a difference. "Food, drinks and beauty products might only contain a small amount of activated charcoal, but this can still interfere with your medication," he says. "If you have a drink or food with activated charcoal in it, a smaller amount is used so it’s less likely to affect medication or painkillers, but it is not impossible. If you’re using supplements, this is much more likely to hinder your medication’s function because of how much you’re consuming. The amounts in food and teeth whitening tend to be small but if you’re using these products every day it can have an effect on how your body is absorbing nutrients and can lead to constipation and dehydration."
He continued, "It’s difficult to put a specific quantity on how much would be needed to interfere with medications but if you have any doubts, it is best avoided."
When it comes to which medications are affected by activated charcoal, the evidence is far from categorical, with sources ranging from Medium to Everyday Health reporting different things. Dr Atkinson tells me that it is known to interfere with acarbose, a medication used to treat type two diabetes, as well as leflunomide, which is used by those with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis. However, as of yet, there is no definitive list from the NHS. In light of this, if you are planning on taking activated charcoal at the same time as any medication, you should check in with your GP to ensure they two don't affect one another.
In addition, its worth noting that the health and wellness benefits of activated charcoal are disputed by some experts. One reported benefit, for example, is that it helps with bloating. However, dietician and gut specialist Dr Megan Rossi tells me that "contrary to what marketing campaigns may say, the evidence for activated charcoal to help with things like bloating is controversial, and it may potentially inhibit the absorption of beneficial nutrients and medications in the small intestine." Rossi continues: "I certainly don’t recommend my clients take activated charcoal for bloating, which it is too often claimed to be a remedy for. Instead I recommend diet and lifestyle strategies, based on the current science, including chewing your food well, splitting food intake into smaller portions, trying peppermint oil capsules and gentle exercise."