Activated charcoal has shown up in everything from natural deodorant and DIY toothpaste to bottled drinks and Instagram-worthy cocktails, and chai. (Chrissy Teigen even tweeted a pic of a big bottle one she hoped would help her “clean her hot dog body from the inside.”) While the ingredient is good to use for beauty purposes (it acts like a magnet for dirt, oils, and odor), experts warn that using it to detox is unsafe—and unnecessary.
Charcoal is burnt organic matter, usually made from coconut shells, peat, or wood, Gina Keatley, a C.D.N. practicing in New York City, tells SELF. “The ‘activation’ in ‘activated charcoal’ comes from a special process during which the charcoal is exposed to gases at high temperatures, which gives the charcoal a very porous surface that acts as a sort of magnet, binding with everything it can get its greedy hands on.”
Doctors use activated charcoal to treat poisoning and drug overdose cases, since it binds with the poison or drug while it’s in your stomach before it gets absorbed by your body, Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., spokeswoman for of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF.
“The idea that activated charcoal will cleanse your body from toxins doesn’t make sense, as it will only bind to things in your stomach and small intestine—not any ‘toxins’ that have built up in your body,” she says. Keatley agrees: “This method is for people who really need a detox, not people who didn’t eat great over the weekend.”
Karen Ansel, R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer, tells SELF that your liver and kidneys actually do a pretty good job on their own keeping your system clean. “First, your liver breaks down toxins and impurities; then your kidneys flush them out,” she explains. “Charcoal works in a completely different way by binding to drugs and poisons so they’re never absorbed into your system.”
But charcoal can also bind to good things, like vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, Ansel says, and actually leave you worse off than you were before. And, she points out, if you also take medications while using activated charcoal, it’s likely you won’t fully absorb them. Plus, others have reported that there’s even the potential for charcoal consumption to block up your intestines with a mass, although it’s hard to say for sure if that will happen.
If you’re coming off a bout of unhealthy eating and feel like you could use a boost, Rumsey recommends increasing your daily intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and water. It’s also a good idea to avoid packaged and fast foods, she says.
Ansel recommends trying a whole-foods-only diet for a few days, which requires that you “skip everything with a long, complicated ingredient list,” she says, adding that it’s also a good idea to increase your fiber intake during this time to keep your digestive system running well.
But Keatley says it’s also important not to judge your past meals and instead plan to be healthier going forward. If you had a hot dog (or six) and enjoyed it, own it. Worrying about it now won’t change the past, and treating yourself to food you love is absolutely not a bad thing. Remember: Indulging is a healthy, normal part of life.
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