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Charcoal, the Humble Ingredient Taking the World by Storm

For all the benefits activated charcoal claims to offer, it was only a matter of time before it was found in products everywhere.

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Good for your skin, great for your teeth, excellent for cleaning out toxins: For all the benefits activated charcoal claims to offer, it was only a matter of time before it was found in products everywhere.

Later this month, New York City's Juice Generation will roll out three new drinks that include the next It ingredient, part of a collection they're calling Beauty Bombs. The green juice, lemonade, and almond milk drinks each have a tablespoon of activated charcoal, which Juice Generation's Emily Parr explains is a natural detoxifier.

"Charcoal absorbs toxins in the body," she says of the substance that is often used in the treatment of alcohol poisoning. "And granted, we're not promoting these juices for overdoses, but a teaspoon a day in a few juices a week can really see an effect on skin."

While wellness-minded celebrities like Shailene Woodley and Gwyneth Paltrow have recently endorsed charcoal, it's been utilized for medical and healing purposes for thousands of years. Charcoal was used in Ancient Egypt and is a mainstay in Chinese medicine, but only became legitimized in the West in 1831 when a professor from the French Academy of Medicine tested its ability to absorb poison while simultaneously not getting absorbed by the body. Ever since, charcoal has been used on overdose patients, to treat GI tract infections, and in water filtration because of its capacity to extract toxins.

Charcoal is made by burning a source like wood, fruit shells, or debris. The result is a porous material perfect for capturing and removing unwanted matter. Ground and put into capsules found at your local health food store, charcoal—which can absorb some 200 times its weight in toxins—is now making its way into trendy juices.

"Charcoal works by binding to toxic substances in the stomach and intestines and prevents the drug or chemical from spreading throughout the body," explains nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg. "Now it is being thought of as an ingredient that can detoxify the entire body."

Parr says Juice Generation's charcoal drinks take a page from the beauty industry. According to the company's market research, charcoal was the most popular new beauty ingredient of 2014. Lush currently has several charcoal products, including soap, facial cleansers, and deodorants. Origins has a charcoal mask that's a bestseller, and back in March, Bioré debuted a charcoal face wash and mask they've dubbed "the new secret weapon." These products promise to plunge dirt from pores, remove deep layers of oil from the skin, and expel concealed toxins.

"At first, product inventors at Lush were playing with charcoal for its ability to color a product, but then they realized the benefits it has on skin," says Lush's Amanda Sipenock. "Charcoal is incredible for detoxifying and has a cleansing, polishing effect since it sloughs off dead skin. If you're looking for a soothing, hydrating product, you're better off using cocoa and shea butters or seaweed, whereas charcoal leaves the skin squeaky clean from a real good scrub."

Wellness bloggers also swear by its ability to whiten teeth because it can remove stains, and even improve overall oral health by killing bacteria.

But back to ingesting charcoal: In LA, Juice Served Here has been selling lemonade with charcoal for just over a year. Danielle Charboneau, the company's director of operations, says the drink is a hit and particularly appeals to customers looking for a detoxifying elixir that cures hangovers.

"You can really feel the benefits of drinking charcoal, and it's not something that you can have too much of because it can't be absorbed," Charboneau notes. "The health benefits are exponential. It helps the body to heal itself and achieve the wellness we are all searching for."

Most of the charcoal used today is activated—that is, charcoal with added oxygen for a more porous material with an increased ability to absorb toxins—and is made from burnt coconut shells. Middleberg notes that consumers should be careful not to purchase petroleum-based charcoal or charcoal that contains sorbitol, a sweetener and laxative that can lead to cramping pains and diarrhea. Middleberg also recommends waiting two hours to consume charcoal after taking medicine, as "charcoal does not discriminate and will absorb anything in your gut, both good and bad and thus may interfere with the absorption of medications and vital nutrients."

Charboneau adds that charcoal juices need to be consumed on an empty stomach for another reason: The ingredient will absorb any nutrients you've just ingested. "When the digestive tract is completely empty, the body is like a dry sponge," she says. So if you've just eaten, "it will absorb the vitamins and minerals from the food and not collect what's in the cell walls."

The same general concept holds up on the beauty end. Patricia Schuffenhauer works for Erno Laszlo, which sells a charcoal soap. She says the brand does not recommend charcoal products for those prone to dryness.

"Charcoal helps out bacteria and any dirt from the pores, but the exfoliating process does have drying power," Schuffenhauer says. "The products are great for normal, combination, or oilier skin types, but we wouldn't recommend them for drier skin."

While brands like Clinique and Olay have yet to introduce charcoal products, beauty experts believe more items will become available as the ingredient continues to break into the mainstream. As for the wellness world, Juice Generation's Parr is willing to place bets that other juice chains will soon follow her company's lead. But is it really okay to drink this stuff on the regular?

"There are definitely gray areas here," says Middleberg. "Charcoal has been found to be safe and not toxic. The debate is over whether activated charcoal should be used for less severe situations, or everyday use, and how much."

The charcoal converts over at Juice Generation and Juice Served Here say it's okay to drink charcoal on a consistent basis—a juice a day, even. Middleberg, on the other hand, suggests summoning the ingredient only when you need to cure a nasty hangover or otherwise detoxify. However, there's no doubt that the demand is there.

As Parr observes, "I haven't seen this much interest since green juice became the new water."

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