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Activated Charcoal Is the New Kale, But Is It Legit?

Wellness and beauty superhero or total hype? The truth about activated charcoal
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When it comes to wellness trends, black is officially the new green. Gone are the days of people sipping kale smoothies every morning to get their detox on. Now, it's all about drinking activated charcoal-infused juices, as they supposedly rid the body of all sorts of nasty stuff.

Have a sweet tooth? Embrace your inner Goth (y'know, the one that disappeared when you graduated from high school) with charcoal ice cream, which is served up at scoop shops like Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream in New York City.

Charcoal is also super-popular in lots of beauty and personal care products -- everything from face masks to soaps to toothpastes. Basically, it's everywhere you look. But does this ashy black ingredient deserve superhero status? Or is it simply something that looks cool when you Instagram it? We chatted with top experts to get the dirt on all things activated charcoal.

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What Is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal has been around forever. It's used in hospitals to treat overdoses of drugs like aspirin, acetaminophen, opium, cocaine, and morphine, says Niket Sonpal, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at Touro College of Medicine. "Activated charcoal is a potent natural treatment used to trap toxins and chemicals in the body, allowing them to be flushed out so the body doesn't reabsorb them," says Sonpal. This isn't the same charcoal you'd use on a BBQ, though.

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Activated Charcoal and Your Diet
While activated charcoal ice cream -- or pizza (yes, it exists) -- makes for a pretty pic, there are absolutely no health benefits to eating anything with this ingredient, says Sonpal. The thing is, the whole detox craze is basically BS. "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," says Sonpal. "People think [their bodies] are full of toxins, but they really aren't."

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The Drawbacks of Chowing Down on Charcoal
"Activated charcoal does have an amazing ability to absorb other materials, which is why it can be helpful in cases of food or chemical poisoning," says Lindsey Pasieka, investigator for "However, studies have shown that continued use of activated charcoal can hinder, and in some cases halt, the effectiveness of other medications by absorbing them before they reach the circulatory system."

Activated charcoal can also cause constipation, stomach pain, and even intestinal blockages, says Simpson. So yeah, maybe not worth the Snapchat views. That being said, if you're willing to take the risk, make sure the charcoal you're eating or drinking is coconut-derived, says Sonpal.

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Activated Charcoal and Your Skin
Chances are, you've seen quite a few black-hued beauty products at the drugstore and Sephora. The good news is, when it comes to your skin, charcoal proves to be a whole lot more useful.

"Activated charcoal has both antibacterial and antifungal properties," says Debra Jaliman, M.D., dermatologist in New York City and author of "Skin Rules." "It helps unclog pores, and it absorbs environmental pollutants, oil, and dirt off the skin." If you have oily skin, you may find charcoal to be particularly useful, as it helps rid the skin of excess oil -- and this can even reduce acne, says Jaliman. She recommends looking for it in a face mask. Since it sits on your face longer than, say, face wash, it's more effective at drawing out impurities from your pores.

A few to try...

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