How Charcoal Became America’s Best Kept Health Secret

activated charcoal

Growing up in Canada, my mother used activated charcoal as a remedy for all kinds of stuff. If I got a bee sting, I got a charcoal poultice. If I had an upset stomach, I got a charcoal drink. A headache? Charcoal in a wet paper towel across the forehead. It seemed like it didn’t matter what it was, if I got sick, I got charcoal. The amazing thing? It usually worked. For bee stings, the swelling went down fast, and the pain went away instantly. For food poisoning and the stomach flu, I would get better overnight. My takeaway as a kid was that this black mysterious powder worked.

But where did this natural remedy come from?

I learned growing up in a Seventh-day Adventist home, that charcoal therapy was advocated by one of our church founders, Ellen White. A prolific writer and health reformer during the late 1800s, she was recently included in the Smithsonian’s 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time. Mainly because she’s still relevant and notable today for writing about health topics way back in the 1800’s that are just now becoming accepted by modern medicine! She had an incredibly advanced knowledge of health, healthful habits, and nutrition.

For example, she advocated a plant-based diet as a matter of health back in the mid 1800’s at a time when it was crazy to think you didn’t need to eat meat and dairy. In fact, her message was considered quackery by doctors and scientists for over 100 years. But not anymore. Today, many peer reviewed, scientific studies have found that a plant-based diet is the best diet for humans. Recently, a documentary called Gamechangers was produced by James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), and the movie interviews vegan world-class athletes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Novak Djokovic, Jackie Chan, Chris Paul, Olympians and MMA fighters to build a strong case that a plant-based diet is the best diet—not just for good health, but for peak performance!

And Adventists? They live on average 7 years longer than everybody else because they have for generations followed the health principles outlined by Ellen White.

But back to charcoal. Ellen White wrote that charcoal has a “mysterious power” to heal, and she recommended it for any kind of venomous bite/sting, for poisoning, stomach pain, skin infections, for detox and for musculoskeletal injuries and pain. She would usually obtain the charcoal from the local blacksmith shop, would pulverize it and for musculoskeletal injuries, put it in a cloth, wet it, and then wrap it around the wound or injury.

This is from one of her many documented experiences with charcoal while present at the construction of Avondale College in Australia:

“When working on the land at Avondale, Australia, the workmen would often bruise their hands and limbs and this in many cases resulted in such severe inflammation that the worker would have to leave his work for some time. One came to me one day in this condition, with his hands tied in a sling. He was much troubled over the circumstances; for his help was needed in clearing the land. I said to him, ‘Go to the place where you have been burning the timber and get me some charcoal from the eucalyptus tree, pulverize it, and I will dress your hand.’ This was done, and the next morning he reported that the pain was gone. Soon he was ready to return to his work.” (Ellen White, Letter 90, 1908)

Her use of charcoal was so frequent and the results so amazing that it influenced one of her students, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (he and his brother started the cereal company) to use charcoal therapy at his famous Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. As other Adventist sanitariums began to open across America and the world, they all used charcoal therapy and this practice has continued to this day, including among many church members like my mom.

If you go today to Uchee Pines, Wildwood, Weimar, Eden Valley, or one of the many Adventist health lifestyle centers in America and around the world, you can find charcoal therapy being used extensively on patients. Most of the patients at the lifestyle centers are suffering from arthritis, sciatic pain, neuropathy, and chronic joint and back pain because of autoimmune conditions, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle illnesses.

In fact, the founder of Uchee Pines Institute, (an Adventist lifestyle center located in Seale, Alabama) Dr. Agatha Thrash, MD, had so much experience using charcoal that she wrote an excellent book on the subject called Charcoal: Startling New Facts About the World’s Most Powerful Clinical Adsorbent, which is currently used as a textbook in many naturopathic schools. She wrote, “… charcoal has special properties making it peculiarly useful in the human experience, its position being unfilled by any known substitute in industry, chemistry, toxicology, and the military. …We have found it able to take up toxic gases, disease germs, fluid toxic wastes or heavy metals. It is indeed a miracle substance.”

But charcoal is not a new natural remedy, it’s one of the oldest.

The use of charcoal as a medicine goes back as far as 1500 BC to the ancient Egyptians who wrote about its use as medicine for all kinds of maladies. Ancient Hindus discovered it could filter water and the Phoenicians came up with a trick to store water on long sea voyages in charred wooden barrels, which would keep the water pure. Ancient Chinese books document the use of charcoal as medicine. Viking soldiers would pack their wounds with charcoal to stave off infection after battle. The Roman doctor Galen wrote over 200 treatises (remedies) using charcoal. However, charcoal fell out of use during the dark ages when all medicine was considered sorcery.

In the modern era, a French chemist M. Bertrand first experimented with charcoal on animals and then famously drank a mixture of charcoal and arsenic in 1813 without any ill effects. In 1830, French pharmacist P.F. Touery swallowed 10 lethal doses of strychnine before the French Academy of Medicine and survived! Charcoal became the new wonder drug. During the American civil war, some doctors would put charcoal mixed with breadcrumbs in the wounds of soldiers to prevent gangrene. Doctors who practiced this reported significantly less amputations.

By the turn of the last century, charcoal was found in all sorts of catalogs as medicine for things like upset stomach, bad breath, tooth aches and wound care. But by the 1950’s, charcoal was dropped from the US Drug Pharmacopeia in favor of many new, expensive drugs created by emerging pharmaceutical companies. Charcoal, after all, is pretty much free.

But charcoal made a comeback in the 1980’s for poison and drug overdoses because nothing Big Pharma made could compare to its effectiveness. Today, charcoal is used for poison control in emergency rooms and first responder vehicles across the US, Canada and most countries. It’s also used to filter blood in kidney dialysis machines, used in HEPA air filters, water filters and used in the food industry for things like removing color from sugar cane (that’s how white sugar is made).

What is charcoal and how does it work?

Charcoal is a lightweight black carbon residue produced by removing water and other volatile gases from animal and plant materials. Charcoal is usually produced by slow heating of wood or other organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Charcoal is not ash. Charcoal is at a stage prior to ash and is still very flammable. For example, the briquettes you use for barbecuing is charcoal, just not medically useful because it’s usually treated with chemicals to help it light easier and burn more evenly.

Activated charcoal is also put through a special process when made, infusing it with more oxygen, making it much more porous, and that’s why it’s called “activated” charcoal. The result is a more powerful adsorbent.

Activated Charcoal is a powerful adsorbent, meaning, it can bond with substances and trap it in its many pores. Activated charcoal is so porous, if you laid out all its nooks and crannies, 5 grams of powder has the surface area of an NFL football field!

Physically, activated carbon binds materials by electrostatic Van der Waals (intermolecular) forces to attract over 4,000 toxins and substances to itself. This is probably the “mysterious power” Ellen White wrote about.

Adsorption (with a “d,” not a “b”) is a physical process that occurs at a molecular level and unlike absorption, once adsorbed, it doesn’t release. That’s why a water filter with charcoal, even when full, doesn’t release toxins and bacteria back into the water flowing through it. The bad stuff is attracted to and then physically bonded to the charcoal.

Charcoal works on the surface of the skin by acting transdermally to draw toxins and bacteria to the surface. Our skin is waterproof but also porous. That’s how, for example, nicotine is delivered to the bloodstream via a nicotine patch. In the same way, charcoal mixed with water (a charcoal poultice) and placed on the surface of the skin will adsorb toxins through the skin transdermally.

In addition, it was discovered in kidney dialysis research that each carbon molecule holds 4 oxygen molecules. So everywhere charcoal goes, it brings oxygen with it. So, leaving charcoal on the surface of the skin for an extended period brings oxygen transdermally to the injury site (similar to hyperbaric oxygen therapy which infuses oxygen gas through high pressure to an injury to speed healing). This is one reason charcoal works so well to promote the healing of infections in wounds, bed sores and is even known to reverse early gangrene! Charcoal brings oxygen directly to the site.

How does it help with muscle and joint pain?

When there is an injury to a part of the body, the body responds protectively by releasing chemicals from white blood cells into the blood or affected tissues to protect your body from foreign substances.

As well, the cells in our tissues operate around the clock when in pain to push out metabolic waste like lactic acid, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, even water. And the bad metabolic waste begins to buildup in your cells. This leads to fluid buildup and inflammation. The chemicals in the fluid usually trigger pain in the nerves. Causing hot flare-ups in your joints and muscles.

Charcoal works to draw the inflammation down by transdermally adsorbing the chemicals and metabolic waste that cause pain—out of the body. The adsorption power of charcoal also increases circulation of blood to the site. As well, by delivering oxygen transdermally to the injury, it also promotes faster healing.

But why don’t people use if it works so well?

Working with activated charcoal is a mess. You have to mix the black powder with water and ground flax seed (or something to thicken it). You have to put it on a cloth or paper towel and then use plastic wrap with tape to keep it on the skin and to prevent it from leaking. Clothes and bedsheets usually get black stains even when you’re extremely careful. So, the fact that it’s so hard to work with has prevented widespread use–even from people who know how to use it.

How do you use charcoal?

You can buy activated charcoal at most health stores or order it online. Just search “activated charcoal” on the Internet and you’ll get lots of options. Charcoal is made either from wood or from coconut shell. The difference is that the pore size differs depending on the source. Wood based charcoal tends to have larger pores and is used industrially for removing color and proteins. Coconut shells have smaller pores and are good for adsorbing gases and chemicals. Most activated charcoal for human consumption is sourced from coconut shell and that is perfectly fine. Wood charcoal works great for human consumption as well. There’s really little difference between coconut or wood based charcoal. If you want to make your own activated charcoal (or just plain charcoal which will also work), there are many YouTube videos on how to make it.

If you need to take activated charcoal orally, you can simply mix the powder in water or juice and drink it. If drinking a charcoal powder mixture is difficult, you can purchase tablets or capsules. Keep in mind tablets have fillers in them so it’s not pure charcoal. And capsules contain such a small amount you need to take 6 or 7 capsules to equal a teaspoon of charcoal. But they’re easier to get down for some people than a chalky drink.

For wounds, skin conditions, insect bites or for pain relief, you can use a charcoal poultice. Here’s a video on how to make your very own charcoal poultice at home.

If making a poultice seems too hard or too messy, you can buy ready to use charcoal patches that infuse the activated charcoal into a hydrogel so that there is no mess. You just peel and stick. You can order charcoal patches at or on Amazon (search “Black Ice patch”).

Activated charcoal doesn’t work for everything. But the applications are many and the outcomes, often nothing short of miraculous. One public health expert I know said if he was trapped in a disaster zone and could only have one thing, he would want a bag of activated charcoal. With it, he could filter clean drinking water, he could detoxify his stomach (in case of food poisoning), and he could use it to prevent infections or for pain if he was wounded. Try activated charcoal and see for yourself why this natural remedy is so amazing.

Read: The Right Way to Use Charcoal Toothpaste

Danny Kwon JD

Danny is the executive director of Life and Health and identifies with the struggle most people have to eat and live healthy, going back to his days eating fast food and working long hours as an attorney all the way to his present trying to find ways to get his kids to eat their veggies. Those challenges inspire him to produce evidence-based media designed to help people live healthier, happier lives. Danny is also the CEO of Carbon Biotech, the makers of Black Ice charcoal patch and is an attorney licensed in California and Canada.

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