Fun with Activated Charcoal

How and When Should You Use Activated Charcoal?

“Um… The only ricotta is this fuzzy grey stuff.”

Picture this:

You’re a hungry woman, sitting at home, not interested in another sandwich. You head to the kitchen, toss some pre-chopped green peppers into a skillet, soften them up, and add some leftover spinach pasta to heat through. You grab a container of ricotta cheese, and add a healthy serving to the pasta, right at the end so it can heat through but not make a huge mess in the pan.

Creamy, yummy, and not bad on the health meter, either.



Your daughter comes home from school, and says she’s hungry. Dinner will be late tonight because of other schedules, so you suggest the pasta dish. There’s still leftover pasta and peppers, so it’ll be easy.



Daughter: “Mom, what cheese should I use?”

You: “The ricotta. Right there on the top shelf.”

Daughter: “Um…” She walks into the room and stands next to your desk, holding a familiar conatiner. “The only ricotta is this fuzzy grey stuff.”

Expiration dates are a thing, apparently. You hadn’t even bothered to look at the cheese as you scooped it into your pan, because you were arguing with a podcast.

OK, maybe if you went back through this article and replaced “you” with “me”, it would be slightly more accurate. A lot more accurate.

Completely accurate.

So, What Did I Do?

Activated Charcoal. There was no real reason for me to see a doctor or call poison control, because I didn’t have any idea if that mold would make me ill. Sure, I was queasy, but most “food poisoning” doesn’t work that quickly. So as my daughter giggled at my horrified face, I grabbed a glass of water.

I stirred in a couple tablespoons of activated charcoal powder and chugged away. It tasted a little dusty, but not very different from water. Towards the end, there was a slight gritty feeling, which was a bit like the bottom of a glass of homemade chocolate milk.

I didn’t develop any symptoms of food poisoning. I have no way of knowing if I would have been fine anyway, or if taking the Activated Charcoal really saved me. I’m OK with that. When it comes to shooting flaming fluids from all parts of my body food poisoning, I fall into the “better safe than camped out in the bathroom” group.


Remember the commercials for vacuum canisters, where they puff the marshmallows up to an enormous size? It’s kind of like that.

Here’s The Stuff on Activated Charcoal:

nochar2              charpowd2

What, Actually, IS “Activated Charcoal”?

Activated Charcoal is a cousin of the stuff you use in your outdoor grill. It is not the same, and you should not eat charcoal briquettes. Ever. For so many reasons. Activated Charcoal is charcoal that has been placed in a pressurized chamber with an inert gas. The pressure and gas cause the charcoal to develop tiny pockets, called “pores”. Remember the commercials for vacuum canisters, where they puff the marshmallows up to an enormous size? It’s kind of like that, only with pressure instead of vacuum. Activated Charcoal is then powdered for most household use.

How Does It Work?

The microscopic pores trap chemicals and hold them. This allows Activated Charcoal to be used effectively in water filters and air purifies. It also allows those chemicals to be flushed from the human body without leaving the digestive system. It is used in cases of drug overdose from oral medications, making it especially useful in homes with children or someone with dementia. Some folks have effectively used Activated Charcoal on a regular basis to help lower cholesterol, while others swear by it as a hangover prevention.

What Would My Doctor Think?

Activated Charcoal is still common to the modern medical field, and is kept in emergency rooms all over the world. It requires no prescription. AC is the first line of treatment for many kinds of ingested poisons. Keeping this treatment in your home can give you a jump-start in the event you find yourself in an emergency situation where you are going to the hospital for help. Your doctor will think you’re pretty smart, and you may be lucky to have been prepared. Activated Charcoal is considered safe during pregnancy, but always call your midwife or doctor if you believe you have ingested any toxin, so they can help you with further advice.

How Do I Take It?

If you’re in an emergency situation, it’s best to stir it into water and chug. This is the fastest way to get the charcoal into your system and allow it to start absorbing the bad stuff. If you’re not in an emergency scenario, or if you want to take AC regularly, you can find it in capsule or tablet form as well. How much you take will depend on your reason for taking it.

Emergency procedure for ingested poisons is to take 50 to 100 grams (10-20 Tablespoons) of Activated Charcoal in water immediately following a drug overdose or other serious ingested toxin. This is followed by smaller (10-15 gram or 2-3 Tablespoon) doses every two to four hours. Children get smaller doses based on their approximate weight.

In my scenario, I took about two Tablespoons in ten ounces of water. I continued drinking water, and took another Tablespoon dose two more times. A LOT of Activated Charcoal is necessary in serious situations, but it is effective and well worth drinking!

Are There Any Side Effects?

If you need to take a lot of AC at once, or choose to take small doses regularly, you may suffer some constipation and blackened stool. To help prevent this, and to help your body naturally eliminate the toxin, drink more water! The few times I’ve used AC in this way I’ve not had any issues, but it is something to note.

When SHOULDN’T I Take Activated Charcoal?

If it’s been longer than an hour since you ingested an overdose of medication or other true poison, AND you are going to get medical care, do not take Activated Charcoal. Doctors may want to give you medication, and the AC can absorb it and keep the medication from working properly. In a situation like mine, where you’re not headed to the ER, time is not a factor.

Don’t take it within an hour of oral medications, a healthy meal, vitamins, or other supplements for the same reason. The AC can absorb the very things you actually want in your system. The exceptions to this rule are when your meal is moldy or your medication/supplement is an overdose. Don’t take AC if you have any problems with bowel obstruction, because of the possible side effect of constipation. Of course, in an emergency the benefit of the AC may outweigh these warnings, but that’s for you to decide based on your situation.


Are There Toxins It DOESN’T Absorb?

Yes. Please seek emergency medical attention if you have overdosed on:

  • Iron
  • Cyanide
  • Lithium
  • Ethanol (the alcohol in wine, beer, and distilled drinks like rum or vodka)
  • Strong Alkaline Substances or Mineral Acids

For a more complete list of the substances absorbed and not absorbed by Activated Charcoal, see this helpful chart.

Where Can I Get Activated Charcoal?

Everywhere, you just have to know that’s what you’re looking for. Your local pharmacy may keep it behind the counter. You can buy it in powder, tablet, or capsule form on Amazon. Your local MegaMart probably has it, too, and maybe even the grocery store. Activated charcoal is traditionally made with hardwood, but now you can find more sustainable options like bamboo or coconut husk that are just as effective. I personally choose not to ingest the stuff made from petroleum. I also choose to buy the powdered form, so that I have more freedom in how I use it. We like the face mask at my house!

As a bonus, Activated Charcoal is also used in homemade face masks, and to whiten teeth. It might seem crazy, since it’s very black and stains everything else, but it can be an effective ingredient in these home products.

Pets can take Activated Charcoal, too. See information on pet poisoning from the ASPCA HERE.

So, if you ever eat moldy cheese, take a swig from the wrong bottle, or eat the wrong berries, now you can take some action yourself. If you have ingested certain toxic cleaning products, taken an overdose of medication accidentally or otherwise, or have been otherwise poisoned in a life-threatening manner, get thee to an emergency room – you can chug some charcoal on the way.


Seriously: I am not a licensed anything. At all. I’ve not attended medical school or had what most would call formal training. I’m a stranger on the internet who happens to do a lot of study on the subject. I do strive to find the most relevant, scientifically studied or historically effective methods. I cannot diagnose medical issues, only suggest what I would do or have done in various situations.


  1. Rosanne

    You are a brave person to swallow that by choice. When I worked in the hospital a couple decades ago we would give it to people who would OD to try and commit suicide. It was gross when that came back up. Mustard and water also works in inducing vomiting.

    • Liberty Zen

      It totally looks gross, but it really doesn’t taste much different than plain tap water. I had gotten one of my bags free in exchange for an Amazon review, when Amazon allowed it. I didn’t want to review it without trying it, but had put it off for a couple of days. When I had the opportunity, though cheese mold isn’t likely to harm me, I took it. I know in situations where someone doesn’t want to take it, it would be difficult to keep down, but I have trouble with taking pills and kept it down easily. I don’t even want to THINK about throwing up mustard and water, or trying to choke that down lol! But it’s a great tip to have on hand if you’re without other options, and if taking the charcoal would be harder on someone than bringing it back up! Thanks!

  2. vicki lorenz

    All I knew before this is giving it to people who ingested drugs for suicide. A young lady who I took under my wing when she was 15 ingested a whole bottle. This is exactly what they gave her. When they were done, she swore that just would never happen again. Thank god it never did again. Now she is 35 a mother and an all around happy person.

    • Liberty Zen

      You say that you took her “under your wing”. I don’t know what form that took, but it doesn’t matter. I love that you chose to care for someone like that, and that she grew up to be someone you could be proud of. Thank you for that!

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