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Activated Charcoal

What is it?

Common charcoal is made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, or petroleum. "Activated charcoal" is similar to common charcoal. Manufacturers make activated charcoal by heating common charcoal in the presence of a gas. This process causes the charcoal to develop lots of internal spaces or "pores." These pores help activated charcoal "trap" chemicals.

Activated charcoal is commonly taken by mouth to treat poisonings. It is also used for intestinal gas (flatulence), high cholesterol, hangovers, upset stomach, and bile flow problems (cholestasis) during pregnancy.

Activated charcoal is applied to the skin as part of bandages for helping heal wounds.

How effective is it?

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.

The effectiveness ratings for ACTIVATED CHARCOAL are as follows:

Possibly effective for...

  • Poisoning. Activated charcoal is useful for trapping chemicals to stop some types of poisoning when used as part of standard treatment. Activated charcoal should be given within 1 hour after a poison has been ingested. It does not seem to be beneficial if given for 2 or more hours after some types of poisoning. And activated charcoal doesn't seem to help stop all types of poisoning.

Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...

  • Diarrhea caused by cancer drug treatment. Irinotecan is a cancer drug known to cause diarrhea. Early research shows that taking activated charcoal during treatment with irinotecan decreases diarrhea, including severe diarrhea, in children taking this drug.
  • Reduced or blocked flow of bile from the liver (cholestasis). Taking activated charcoal by mouth seems to help treat cholestasis in pregnancy, according to some early research reports.
  • Indigestion (dyspepsia). Some early research shows that taking certain combination products containing activated charcoal and simethicone, with or without magnesium oxide, can reduce pain, bloating, and feelings of fullness in people with indigestion. It's unclear if taking activated charcoal by itself will help.
  • Gas (flatulence). Some studies show that activated charcoal is effective in reducing intestinal gas. But other studies don't agree. It's too early to come to a conclusion on this.
  • Hangover. Activated charcoal is included in some hangover remedies, but experts are skeptical about how well it might work. Activated charcoal doesn't seem to trap alcohol well.
  • High cholesterol. So far, research studies don't agree about the effectiveness of taking activated charcoal by mouth to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.
  • High levels of phosphate in the blood (hyperphosphatemia). Early research shows that taking activated charcoal daily for up to 12 months appears to reduce phosphate levels in people with kidney disease, including those on hemodialysis who have high phosphate levels.
  • Wound healing. Studies on the use of activated charcoal for wound healing are mixed. Some early research shows that using bandages with activated charcoal helps wound healing in people with venous leg ulcers. But other research shows that activated charcoal does not help treat bed sores or venous leg ulcers.
  • Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of activated charcoal for these uses.

How does it work?

Activated charcoal works by "trapping" chemicals and preventing their absorption.

Are there safety concerns?

When taken by mouth: Activated charcoal is LIKELY SAFE for most adults when taken by mouth, short-term. Taking activated charcoal long-term by mouth is POSSIBLY SAFE. Side effects taking activated charcoal by mouth include constipation and black stools. More serious, but rare, side effects are a slowing or blockage of the intestinal tract, regurgitation into the lungs, and dehydration.

When applied to the skin: Activated charcoal is LIKELY SAFE for most adults when applied to wounds.

Special precautions & warnings:

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Activated charcoal might be safe when used short-term if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, but consult with your healthcare professional before using if you are pregnant.

Gastrointestinal (GI) blockage or slow movement of food through the intestine: Don't use activated charcoal if you have any kind of intestinal obstruction. Also, if you have a condition that slows the passage of food through your intestine (reduced peristalsis), don't use activated charcoal, unless you are being monitored by your healthcare provider.

Are there interactions with medications?

Be cautious with this combination.
Alcohol (Ethanol)
Activated charcoal is sometimes used to prevent poisons from being absorbed into the body. Taking alcohol with activated charcoal might decrease how well activated charcoal works to prevent poison absorption.
Birth control pills (Contraceptive drugs)
Activated charcoal absorbs substances in the stomach and intestines. Taking activated charcoal along with birth control pills can decrease how much of the birth control pills your body absorbs. This can decrease the effectiveness of your birth control pills. To prevent this interaction, take activated charcoal at least 3 hours after and 12 hours before you take birth control pills.
Medications taken by mouth (Oral drugs)
Activated charcoal absorbs substances in the stomach and intestines. Taking activated charcoal along with medications taken by mouth can decrease how much medicine your body absorbs, and decrease the effectiveness of your medication. To prevent this interaction, take activated charcoal at least one hour after medications you take by mouth.
Syrup of ipecac
Activated charcoal can bind up syrup of ipecac in the stomach. This decreases the effectiveness of syrup of ipecac.

Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?

There are no known interactions with herbs and supplements.

Are there interactions with foods?

Alcohol (Ethanol)
Alcohol may make activated charcoal less effective in "trapping" poisons and other chemicals.
Activated charcoal can make it more difficult for the body to absorb micronutrients.

What dose is used?

The following doses have been studied in scientific research:


  • For drug overdose or poisoning: 50-100 grams of activated charcoal is given at first, followed by charcoal every 2-4 hours at a dose equal to 12.5 grams per hour. Sometimes a single-dose of 25-100 grams of activated charcoal may be used.

  • For drug overdose or poisoning: Activated charcoal 10-25 grams is recommended for children up to one year of age, while activated charcoal 25-50 grams is recommended for children 1-12 years of age. Activated charcoal 10-25 grams is recommended if multiple-doses of activated charcoal are needed.

Other names

Activated Carbon, Animal Charcoal, Carbo Vegetabilis, Carbon, Carbón Activado, Charbon Actif, Charbon Activé, Charbon Animal, Charbon Médicinal, Charbon Végétal, Charbon Végétal Activé, Charcoal, Gas Black, Lamp Black, Medicinal Charcoal, Noir de Gaz, Noir de Lampe, Vegetable Carbon, Vegetable Charcoal.


To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.


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Last reviewed - 08/26/2020