People from various corners of Pinterest boast about the many benefits of activated charcoal—from detoxing stomachs to curing hangovers. I decided to put the new fad to the ultimate test and popped some charcoal pills.
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Your body is two thirds water. Brita filters clean water. Therefore, eating the stuff inside Brita filters must be good for you. This is the faultless logic behind the newest detox treatment sweeping Pinterest: activated charcoal.
Allegedly, activated charcoal can whiten your teeth, tighten your pores, detox your tummy, and prevent hangovers. It supposedly soaks impurities out of your skin, teeth, and stomach, leaving you a purer and better version of yourself. The bottle I bought recommended eating two horse tranquilizer-sized pills after every meal to prevent indigestion. But I was going to go further than that: I scoured myself with charcoal, cramming every orifice with black powder until I became an immortal being of pure light.
I tried the face masks, the teeth whitening treatments, and the hangover cure. "This is stupid," said my husband. "How do you even activate charcoal?"
Charcoal isactivated by steaming it with superheated water or acid—a process pioneered by Russian toxicologist Von Ostrejko in the early 1900s.
"It's got a ton of little pores and crypts," says Daniel E. Rusyniak, medical director of the Indiana Poison Center. These pits and crypts create an absurd amount of surface area on each tiny grain of charcoal. This surface area is what lets charcoal adsorb (that's adsorb with a 'd') chemicals from its environment. To clarify, absorption is when substances are soaking up like water in a sponge, but adsorption is when substances bind to a surface—like kettle corn. "The charcoal will bind to anything in your stomach and leave in your stool," explains Rusyniak.
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In the ER, charcoal is used to treat drug overdoses and severe poisoning. The charcoal is mixed into a slurry, sometimes with sorbitol (a sweetener/laxative) added. "As the drugs dissolve in your stomach, they bind to the charcoal," says Rusyniak.
This is probably why people thought to use activated charcoal to treat hangovers. But charcoal is not usually used to treat alcohol poisoning. "It's very rapidly absorbed through your stomach," says Michael Lynch, medical director for the Pittsburgh Poison Center. Alcohol is in your blood and making you do dumb things within half an hour of drinking it. "[The alcohol] isn't in your stomach long enough to be adsorbed because it's already been absorbed," says Lynch. By the time someone makes it to the ER, the alcohol has most likely been absorbed into the bloodstream.
I asked Lynch what would happen if someone were to take charcoal before drinking, so that it would be ready and waiting for the booze when it arrived. He conceded that some alcohol would likely be adsorbed, but "it would be hard to predict how much would be adsorbed, though. There's a volume issue." The amount of charcoal poured into an overdose victim is equivalent to an entire bottle of pills. Alcohol molecules are also the wrong shape to bind to charcoal. "Smaller molecules don't bind as well," says Lynch.
Rusyniak thought the whole plan seemed backwards. "Generally, people who are drinking alcohol want to absorb it." What's the point of drinking if it won't get you drunk?
I love drinking; I hate being drunk. And it's usually a matter of one drink for me to go from pleasantly tipsy to Filburt from Rocko's Modern Life: rolling around on the ground muttering "I'm nauseous, I'm nauseous." Charcoal pills could potentially be the miracle cure I need to slow my roll.
I popped two grey capsules before going to a friend's tamale party. I drank and drank and drank without ever feeling particularly hammered, presumably because the charcoal was getting drunk for me. On a scale of 1 to The Lost Weekend, I was a 3. I got into a lengthy discussion about weird places to poop, but that was about as ribald as the night got.
The unfortunate flipside of the charcoal coin hit me at 4 AM, when I was lying awake on my couch. I'd taken my regularly scheduled melatonin to help me sleep, but the charcoal took the good drugs with the bad. "That's one of my main concerns with this new fad," says Lynch. "If we were to eat or drink charcoal before everything, we'd absorb fewer nutrients." There are some medications that require a constant level in your blood to work—things like heart medicine and drugs that prevent the rejection of donated organs. "If you lose that effect even briefly, that can have serious health effects," says Lynch.
I took advantage of my sleepless night by trying the activated charcoal beauty treatments. Adding charcoal to my regular face mask somehow gave me the tiniest pores I've ever had. After wiping the mask off my face, I was as smooth as a porcelain doll. But while it was on, it looked like I was in blackface, so that was unfortunate. Brushing my teeth with charcoal had no noticeable effect besides making me look like that picture of Bjork eating squid ink pasta.
I wouldn't want to see someone testing this by ingesting a poison
On Sunday, I pitted activated charcoal against my old nemesis, brunch. I can't do day drunk. I just get sleepy and overheated. But with two charcoal pills in me, I subjected myself to endless mimosas like any other millennial. I had half a bottle of champagne, felt nothing, then switched to Irish coffees. Brunch became late afternoon tea, where I had a beer and some tiki drinks. This transitioned into dinner with my parents over red wine. I started drinking at 1 PM, and finished around 10:30. I didn't feel drunk until around 9, when I got into a fight with my husband about proper yakitori food truck management. Because the charcoal had tired itself out on my booze-up, my melatonin absorbed fully into my bloodstream and I slept like a drunk little baby. I awoke hangover free.
"I wouldn't want to see someone testing this by ingesting a poison," says Lynch. Which is basically what I did. I cannot recommend doing the all-day drunk I subjected myself to for science, but mitigating a few mimosas by popping a couple charcoal pills seemed to work just fine.