One of the most groundbreaking discoveries of recent years, even when it stems of a history really ancient, is something that has been widely touted as a miracle powder. A profusion of the black masses, jet black to say, that which today enjoys fame as a cleansing agent par excellence, activated charcoal is at present a buzzword in the lifestyle spectrum of humans. Despite however its prominence in the realm of the beauty world, as a super ingredient that makes for those highly effective face masks that cleanses the skin, it is quite surprising that activated charcoal, or activated carbon, has a history rooted more in what is essential rather than what has granted it popular identity as a necessity in indulgence. Even more surprising is the fact that this wonder ingredient has been in use since times as early as the 3750 BC in documentation, while even perhaps preceding has been its legacy as a multiutility form of carbon, first discovered by the ancient Egyptians. Modern day applications of activated charcoal too aren’t anything recent, spanning at least a couple of centuries before gaining commonplace status as a substance that harbours the potential to effectively work wonders in a range of practical areas of human interest- most prominently in the healthy and beauty realms.
The first documented use of activated charcoal credits the Egyptians for finding use for it in smelting ores to create bronze. Also in tow were the Sumerians who produced charcoal for the reduction of copper, zinc and tin ores in the manufacture of bronze. Charcoal burns at a temperature higher than that of wood that explains its effectiveness in melting and combining metals. But burnt charcoal also possesses anti bacterial properties- something realized by the ancient Egyptians when they discovered that charred wooden posts didn’t rot when placed into the Nile for construction purposes. Such mystifying properties of activated charcoal led it to be further exploited by the Egyptians, who made use of its anti bacterial and antifungal attributes for purposes of the medical as well as in ritualistic practices.
By 1500 BC, activated charcoal had found use in intestinal ailments, absorbing unpleasant odors particularly during wound treatments and even for writing on papyrus. Some 1000 years later, the antiseptic properties of activated charcoal was also derived upon by the ancient Hindus and Phoenicians to purify water. With long sea voyages the order of the days back then, water barrels with their insides charred by charcoal found use for the help it extended in purifying and preserving water.
Around the same time, activated charcoal began to find even extensive use in medicine with eminent Greek physician Hippocrates treating a range of illnesses such as epilepsy, iron deficiencies, dizziness and even bacterial diseases like anthrax by introducing charcoal into his remedies. Cut to the times of the 50 A.D. and the Roman physician Pliny followed, as he discovered the many ways charcoal comes to encompass medicinal properties when burnt. Before him, it was another Roman physician Claudius Galen, one of the most prolific of his time, who had regularly been referencing his use of charcoal, of both vegetable and animal origin, to treat various diseases.
For much of the first and the second millenniums though, activated charcoal was pushed into obscure grounds of knowledge as the suppression of the sciences first by Rome around 300 A.D. and the period of history through the Dark Ages meant that not much scope existed in the further study and research of this wonder agent, limiting therefore its expanse of application as far as practical knowledge is concerned. It was only much later, sometime in the 1700s that charcoal regained its eminence as a miracle substance of yore. As a prescription medicine for various ailments, activated charcoal acted on its absorbent properties of fluid and gases as well as on its disinfectant properties to emerge as the surprising cure that it had been proclaimed to be since the early times.
The later part of the 18th century had been specially significant in asserting the long explored properties of charcoal as scientists started to pursue research of this fascinating substance with a renewed vigor. The following century saw an even increased popularity of the amazing properties of activated carbon, the process for which was developed sometime between the 1870s to the 1920s. As the initial discoloration properties of charcoal first came to light in 1776, courtesy Russian chemist Johann Lowitz, charcoal began to impact diametrically unrelated industries as well- most notably the sugar industry and associated trades. Also impacted by this discovery was another aspect of the health explorations in humans- with activated charcoal water filters made possible that would drain out toxins from water, water borne diseases would also come to take a backseat.
Otherwise even, the medicinal benefits of activated charcoal continued to accrue to human health as poultices made from charcoal and bread crumbs or yeast as well as charcoal powders to alleviate fetid ulcers, acidity in the stomach, and even nosebleeds were treated by its use. The development of the charcoal activation process placed particular thrust upon its use as an antidote for poisons, something that lent activated charcoal the edible status that today is so preferred an option, whether it be for truly medical reasons or purely aesthetic ones. From medical prescriptions of lozenges, biscuits, and tooth powders that have been prevailing since more than a century now to to such indulgent treats as ice creams and shakes and burgers and sandwiches or just about any other form of food that can dazzle up your social media with that rich and luxuriant shade of sophisticated jet black, activated carbon has made its presence felt in all areas of life, deriving of course from its beneficial properties to find such expressions that are soothing and stimulating all at once.
Listed on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, activated charcoal is particularly popular in its use as an agent to counter the effects of certain forms of oral poisoning. Also continuing with its effectiveness in treatment of gastro- intestinal and related issues are activated charcoal biscuits and pills that help relieve conditions of diarrhea, indigestion, and flatulence. How activated charcoal works in its emergency toxin removal mechanism is its working on the principle of adsorption, which is a process whereby the molecules of a substance bind to the surface of another—in this case, activated charcoal. As a form of carbon that is processed to have small, low-volume pores that increase the surface area to an excess of 3,000 m2 per gram of it, activated carbon in fact is the ultimate detox, whether it be in working on the internal organs of the body by attracting the toxins or in its ability to extract impurities from the physical surface of the skin.
But the amazing way in which activated charcoal has been proven to work in such cases of the medical however are not as efficiently tested in other, more commonly popular applications of it. Particularly in the beauty world where activated charcoal skin masks are seen as the one stop solution to achieve flawless skin or activated charcoal detox drinks are all the rage in claiming to drain the body of all unwanted substances and toxins, the benefits of this miracle ingredient has not been substantially well established yet. Also circulated are anti ageing benefits, weight loss properties, alcohol induced hangover cures and energy enhancing attributes that supposedly stem from this black wonder, again without sufficient evidence to command credibility. Not just humans however, even widely circulated is the additive status of activated carbon to a range of pet food, that which equally lacks any sort of established backing by science.
Nevertheless, this form of highly processed carbon continues to see popularity across a wide range of popular use- ranging from the ubiquitous masks and detox drinks to toothpastes and shampoos and of course the delectable spread of shiny black food that for once do not inspire disgust at the mere mention of something ‘not fair’. But even particularly dangerous might be the consumption of activated charcoal through such foods that come with no tracking of the amounts that might be making their way into our system. The high adsorption affinities of activated carbon means also that it might as well be draining essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients out of our body, the repercussions of which does not reveal itself as definite since it is not known for certain yet as to how activated charcoal works upon such elements that are vital for the body.
With such ambiguities existing as to the real implications that can be brought about by a mindless submission to the magical beliefs that activated carbon might possess, the miracle substance suddenly appears to be not so miraculous at all. Or it might still be as magical as proponents of it claim it to be, but only if we stick to what has been universally validated rather than take the popular route to achieve standards of beauty that only defy the premises of a human existence that derives its charms from its imperfections. As far as snapping for the ‘gram is concerned though, ordering those plates of black beauties once in a blue moon should be enough to keep the beauty flowing!