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What to Know About Using Activated Charcoal During Cancer

Activated charcoal is a buzzy ingredient that can be found in everything from face masks and toothpaste to over-the-counter supplements. Activated charcoal is a fine black powder that is created by heating charcoal at very high temperatures. During this process, the charcoal becomes extremely porous and absorbent. 

Activated charcoal’s most common medical use is as a treatment for poisoning. When recommended by the doctor, people can take activated charcoal by mouth while under medical supervision if certain poisons have been ingested. It works by binding to the toxin, preventing the body from absorbing it. However, more recently, activated charcoal has been marketed for its health and beauty benefits.

If you are considering using products that contain activated charcoal during cancer, it’s important to know that there is little research around its potential benefits or side effects in the cosmetic space. More importantly, activated charcoal may interact with certain medications, including treatments used for cancer and its side effects. Here’s what to know before adding activated charcoal to your routine.

What is activated charcoal used for as a supplement?

The internet and social media abound with recommendations for using charcoal as a way to detoxify the body. Activated charcoal can be purchased over the counter as a supplement in pill form or as a powder. Labels for these pills or powders often suggest their absorbent qualities, but as supplements, they are not intended to treat diseases.

Rather, marketed uses for activated charcoal include helping to manage hangovers, digestive issues, and high cholesterol. However, there is no strong scientific evidence to support most of these claims, according to the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus website. People with celiac disease, which causes an intolerance to gluten, have also used activated charcoal to treat the inadvertent ingestion of gluten. But, again, there is not sufficient evidence to support this use either, according to researchers.

It is important to know that activated charcoal supplements do not require approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being sold, and manufacturers of these supplements do not have to provide safety and efficacy evidence. If you are turning to activated charcoal for its claimed health benefits, keep in mind that research shows eating healthy foods, exercising, limiting alcohol, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress are the most proven ways to stay healthy.

How is activated charcoal used in cosmetic products?

Activated charcoal’s absorbent qualities make it an attractive ingredient in beauty products like soaps, face masks, and deodorants. Manufacturers claim that these products can help absorb toxins from your skin, cleansing your pores or leaving your armpits fresher. If you are thinking about using beauty products with activated charcoal, keep in mind that certain cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can make your skin dry and itchy, so you may want to avoid products with activated charcoal that can sap moisture. Always be sure to talk with your health care team for their recommendations on beauty products during cancer treatment.

Toothpastes can also include activated charcoal, which manufacturers say promotes whitening and removal of discoloration. However, some researchers found no significant difference between these and other toothpastes. Since cancer treatment can affect your oral health, it is important to ask your dentist for a recommended toothpaste while undergoing treatment.

What are the risks of using activated charcoal during cancer?

There is little scientific study of these products’ benefits or side effects in the cosmetic industry. Of particular concern is that ingesting activated charcoal by taking it as a supplement could interfere with other medications you’re taking, as it may affect how well they are absorbed. This could mean it may affect how well medications you are taking for cancer or its side effects work. That is why it is important to talk with your health care team before starting an activated charcoal supplement to ensure there are no potential harmful effects.

“Activated charcoal may affect the absorption of many orally administered medications. This could lead to causing cancer medications or other supportive care medications not being absorbed, leading to negative outcomes. Patients should ensure that none of their medications will be impacted by the activated charcoal, and ideally, they would find an alternative solution.” — Benyam Muluneh, PharmD, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy and a spokesperson for the Hematology/Oncology Pharmacy Association

The information in this post is based on the current research and expert opinions available today. These findings may change as more research into this topic emerges.