What is Activated Charcoal?

by Melissa Chichester

As your eyes scan the supplements shelves, it is likely that something will jump out as being surprising or even shocking; one of those supplements might just be activated charcoal.

Most of us probably think about charcoal as being a necessary tool for the barbeque; however, there is a big difference between those black cooking coals and activated charcoal. In supplement form, activated charcoal has a colorful history and some surprising uses.

The history of activated charcoal

In the early 1800s, chemist Michel Bertrand and professor Pierre-Fleurus Touéry conducted risky experiments involving activated charcoal that sparked interest in the medical community to further study the substance. Both Touéry and American physician William Hort studied the effect of activated charcoal on individuals who ingested poison. (1).

In 1915, American chemist James Bert Garner used activated charcoal made from peach pits to study how it affected soldiers who had been exposed to the effects of chlorine gas.; And activated charcoal was even hidden inside of a special chamber for use in gas masks (2)!

Despite that, it wasn’t until the 1960s that physicians and researchers began to consider further the potential benefits of using activated charcoal as a health aid.

How activated charcoal is made

Activated charcoal is typically made from materials that contain carbon, like coconut shells, coal, or wood pulp. While manufacturing processes may differ, one common practice is to heat the charcoal at a very high temperature and oxidized until it develops tiny pores that in turn trap chemicals and other substances when the activated charcoal is ingested. The resulting pores are so tiny that just one teaspoon of activated charcoal has the same surface area as a football field (3).

Activated charcoal uses

Today, activated charcoal is listed on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines (4). Charcoal is also popular in the beauty world, particularly in face masks, as it is believed known to draw out impurities from the skin by adsorbing to dirt and oil that gets trapped in pores. As a supplement, activated charcoal is traditionally used to adsorb a variety of substances†, often taken after meals.

†Traditional use claims are based on historical or traditional practices. Activated charcoal has been traditionally used to adsorb a variety of substances for over 180 years, and was first documented by French and American health practitioners.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1306980/pdf/westjmed00158-0063.pdf
  2. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/02/what-america-looked-like-collecting-peach-pits-for-wwi-gas-masks/252294/
  3. https://www.poison.org/articles/2015-mar/activated-charcoal
  4. http://www.who.int/medicines/publications/essentialmedicines/20th_EML2017_FINAL_amendedAug2017.pdf?ua=1