With all the technological advances in modern medicine, you’d think that something as old-fashioned as charcoal would be an anachronism in contemporary hospitals. But you’d be wrong. Activated charcoal – which has been treated with oxygen to open millions of pores in its atomic structure – is still the go-to substance when it comes to preventing certain poisons from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
Hopefully you’ll never have to rely on the toxin-ejecting power of charcoal in a medical situation, but however you harness its abilities, the process is the same: It’s called “adsorption”, in which one item passes into another. It involves the particles of one substance clinging to the surface of the other. This means that because charcoal isn’t digested by the body, particles of certain toxins will cling to it and exit the body with it.
But the power of charcoal doesn’t stop there. Read on for other surprising uses for this amazing material.
As a skin treatment
It sounds unlikely, but charcoal is an effective way to cleanse dirt and debris from the skin. We’re not suggesting you plunge your face into the remnants of last night’s fire. Instead, invest in a product such as L’Oréal Men Expert X-Treme Charcoal Foam ($12.25, 1300 659 359). This face wash uses charcoal to mop up the excess oil and pollutants that cause breakouts. If the masculine branding puts you off, ladies, then check out the pore-clearing Origins Clear Improvement Charcoal Mask ($34, kitcosmetics.com.au).
As a gas neutraliser
While some members of the medical industry are still undecided about its efficacy, activated charcoal is said to ease gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, gas and indigestion. You’ll find daily charcoal supplements in most pharmacies that are marketed to absorb excess gas in the gastrointestinal tract to ease bloating, flatulence, cramping and stomach pain.
As a hair treatment
It may seem counterintuitive to spread a dark liquid over your hair, but charcoal is highly effective at removing pollutants and grease. Try it with Perfect Hair Charcoal Revitalising Shampoo and Conditioner ($32 each,perfect-hair.com.au).
As a water filter
Activated charcoal is a form of carbon and is highly effective when it comes to removing volatile organic compounds, benzene, chlorine, pesticides, radon and some metals from water, which can improve its taste and smell. Depending on your budget and dedication to the concept, you can have a company such as Filtered Water Solutions (available in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) install a filtration system on your tap at home for about $250. At the other end of the scale are water bottles fitted with a carbon filter to purify your tap water, such as the Brita Fill & Go ($19.95, brita.com.au; with four filters that each last a week). For something a bit bigger to keep in the fridge, try the Bobble Jug ($19.99, waterbobble.com.au; one filter lasts for 150 litres of tap water).
As a fridge odour-eater
You’re probably picking up a theme, namely that charcoal adsorbs pretty much anything in its vicinity and removes the offensive material. You know that moment when you open the fridge and are punched in the nostrils by a fist of pungent garlic, overly ripe cheese or a nasally offensive combination of both? This is where the Sort Of Coal Kuro Cube, ($19.20, saxony.com.au) can come in very handy. This block is the size of a Rubik’s cube and made from activated charcoal; not only will it keep your fridge smelling fresh, it will also absorbs ethylene gas which can cause fresh produce to spoil.
It works just as well on aromas in your car or wardrobe, and when it begins to lose its power it can easily be “recharged” simply by placing it outside in the sun for a couple of hours.
As a pregnancy supplement
Some pregnant women approaching their due date can experience a severe and annoying itch caused by pregnancy hormones that affect the level of bile in the gallbladder. Some early studies have shown that an oral supplement of activated charcoal can improve this condition, which is known as cholestasis, however, more research is needed to establish its safety.
A word of warning
Because of the adsorption process, activated charcoal supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of other medications. This is because it traps everything, not just the bad stuff. Check with your doctor before taking activated charcoal. It’s also recommended not to take it for at least an hour after you’ve had other tablets.