The humble koyla in a chemically altered form is being used in everything, from burger breads to face scrubs. If healthy-is-the-new-sexy is your status, you'll have at least one activated charcoal product in your home. Question is, should you?
It's great," says Jayadev Calamur, an Andheri East resident, while discussing a face wash that he has just started using. The 35-year-old who heads the content team at a startup in Kurla says the treatment of a 2003 bout of tuberculosis of the intestine, killed not just the TB bacteria in his body, but also the good bacteria, which reflected on his skin.
"I had flaky skin, acne and several dermatological issues. I also began getting scales on my scalp, which I haven't been able to resolve yet. It's essentially a very dry scalp and if I try to do anything with it, I get wounds." Medicines, creams haven't helped. Shaving would lead to the skin peeling off, and so in 2010, he started growing a beard. This led him to stop at a Beardo stall, a company that sells skincare products for men, while at a mall. "They suggested that the activated charcoal product might just work for my skin. And it has. I don't feel like my skin is dying on me anymore."
Sumanto Chattopadhyay and Dr Ajit Baviskar
Black is the new black
It first entered the Indian consciousness around 2014. Among the first campaigns to use activated charcoal as a commercial detox superhero was the Pond's Pure White Deep Cleansing Face Wash. A smartly devised television commercial, little over 20 seconds long, showed a woman on a two-wheeler battling pollution with a facewash whose power had been amplified by the particle that could enter your pores and remove the chemicals deposited on your skin. And the after was a clear, smooth, fair skin. Who wouldn't want that?
But, humans are a greedy species. If activated charcoal can clean our skin, can it clean our insides? The answer lies somewhere on the tight rope between yes and no. The head of emergency at Parel's Global Hospital, Dr Ajit Baviskar, is familiar with the black powder. He will tell you that activated charcoal has been used in cases of poisoning in the emergency room for a "pretty long time". It is a gastric decontaminator.
A worker in Jharia loads a truck with coal using baskets. Jharia in eastern Jharkand is notorious for open cast coal mining, which is linked to the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Pic/Getty Images
"What it does is," he explains, "it binds with most of the ingested material that the patient has consumed and reduces its absorption into the blood stream." For certain kinds of poisoning, it's available in capsule/powder form, and should be administered as soon as possible, preferably within minutes. However, Baviskar adds, it is not used in cases of lithium, iron or alcohol poisons, as it hasn't been found to be helpful.
"Also, if a patient is drowsy, and can't maintain airway or senses, avoid using activated charcoal as there is a chance that the substance may enter the lungs. In such cases, a nasal gastric tube would be the best way to administer the drug." Usually, he says, a dosage of 50-100 gm is given to start with, 12.5 gm repeated every one hour as need permits. Activated charcoal, he says, is not absorbed by the body and is released as all things go, through the gastrointestinal route. In fact, so well known are its uses in absorbing pollutants, that it's used in water filteration systems and even in scuba diving equipment to keep oil and moisture out of the compressor that fills the cylinders with air.
In January this year, Andheri resident Jayadev Calamur started using Beardo's charcoal facewash. For the first time in almost two decades, he says, his skin feels like "it's not dying"
Deepa Khushalani, associate professor at the department of chemical sciences at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), explains that carbon exists in many forms in nature, for instance, coal and graphite. "One can increase the surface area of these structures through various processes. For instance, when you use emery or sandpaper on a surface, you are agitating the solid and breaking it down into teeny tiny particles, similarly you can physically grind down charcoal to activate it," says Khushalani.
What breaking down something into smaller pieces does is, it increases the surface area of the substance. And charcoal can be obtained from a variety of substances — wood, coconut husk, leaves, etc. If heated at the right temperature, these substances can be converted into charcoal and in some cases other elements can be introduced such as nitrogen or even silver. These additions change the function of charcoal and, therefore, activate it, in a sense, for different purposes. Because activated charcoal is a porous substance, and its surface area is large, it can naturally pull in more toxins from the environment, making it a natural detoxifying agent. And these detox properties are what users like Calamur are attracted to.
Sumanto Chattopadhyay, chairman and CCO of 82.5 Communications, Ogilvy Group, was with the mothership in 2014 when he worked as an executive creative director on the Pond's facewash ad. On what might have made the ad capture the next big ingredient, he says, "Every few years, something new comes in and gets widely used as an ingredient with benefits. At one point it was aloe vera which then found its way into juice and moisturisers. Activated charcoal has a purifying quality, just like aloe vera. Even I have consumed juices with activated charcoal."
On the visualisation of the ad, Chattopadhyay feels that the demo of the impurities swirling out of the model's pores and being absorbed by the carbon molecule had an intuitive connect. That it would make in to our foods, just like aloe did, was only a matter of time. And, while it's easier to reconcile with applying aloe vera on your face, while adding it to your morning energy boosting drink, as Chattopadhyay puts it, "It's weird that I am swallowing coal, but it's quite nice."
Raw Pressery's charcoal lemonade drink comes with a warning that states "pregnant women/chronic disease patients please check with your physician before consuming". The company says it advices that no more than two bottles of the charcoal drink be consumed in a day. In 2017, Foodhall at its Palladum outlet in Lower Parel, dedicated an entire section to activated charcoal where you could pick anything from a black croissant to black burger buns
Activated charcoal in the last few years is inching towards cult status. In fact, in 2017, Foodhall at its Palladum outlet in Lower Parel, dedicated an entire section to the zone where you could pick anything from a black croissant to black burger buns. Their food strategist, Swasti Aggarwal, says the decision to introduce activated charcoal eats came after a trip to Bangkok where the team saw the products trending. That the powder came with health benefits, made it stand apart from others on the counter and did not change the taste of the baked product, made it the perfect experiment to bring back home.
Anuj Rakyan, managing director of Raw Pressery, says, "Being Healthy is the new sexy and consumers are not just curious but knowledgeable and open to trying healthy alternatives to build a good lifestyle. They are experimenting with products on the shelf and this encourages a company like us that has stood for innovation." Two years ago, the firm introduced the charcoal lemonade. Initially, a part of their cleanse packs, it was later introduced for individual pack sale. Rakyan, over an email communication through a representative points out, that activated charcoal is one of the oldest ingredients used across the world. Ancient Egyptians used it as a natural detoxifier to cleanse their bodies. In India it has been used in Ayurveda for reducing digestive ailments.
"We, as a company, constantly strive to bring natural, healthy ingredients and superfoods that can be beneficial if incorporated in our diets. Activated charcoal was one such ingredient," he adds. The Raw Pressery drink is lemonade with lemon, rock salt, agave, water and activated charcoal made from the husk of a coconut shell. Completely natural, Rakyan claims, activated charcoal is safe for use.
And, if it can be in your drinks and foods, why not your bed?
Launched in July 2017, Wink and Nod is a Pune-headquartered start-up that provides sleep solutions online. In December 2018, they jumped on the carbon bandwagon and launched a pillow, which contains activated charcoal in memory foam. Here, the carbon is technical grade and fused with the pillow. The idea, says Keerthi Balakumar, chief product officer, came from the American market where consumers had shown improved sleep on using such pillows. The logic is that the activated charcoal absorbs allergents, moisture and pollutants from the air. That metro cities such as Bengaluru, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai are consistently watching the air quality means the product found, just like the facewash, resonance with the market. Priced at R2,999, over 2000 pillows have been sold since launch.
Shades of grey
The proof, says Balakumar, lies in the Fitbit. "While we don't have any scientific results on how much pollutant the pillow absorbs, in the last two months that I have been using the pillow I have seen an improvement in my quality of sleep. The fitness band shows an increased quantity of deep sleep," he adds. And when you wake up from this deep sleep, you can brush your teeth with charcoal too. Bandra-based dentist Dr Mukul Dabholkar says activated carbon is used both in toothpaste and toothbrushes (where the nylon bristles are infused with the substance). The initial concern would be that charcoal was too gritty and would wear out the enamel, however, in the paste, the molecules are sized down so that they are not harmful. "However, it can only take off surface stains, say from tea or coffee, and not whiten teeth. Earlier, there used to be Monkey brand black tooth powder, which people still use. To that, I'd say use a fluorinated toothpaste, which will reduce the rate of decay of the teeth. Activated charcoal can't do harm, it can only do good," he adds.
And, while Calamur may attest to the miracles of activated charcoal, celebrity cosmetic dermatologist Jaishree Sharad isn't convinced. She says "Charcoal is an anti-bacterial. And, if you have oily skin, it'll help dry the skin. However, it can't detox the skin." But, at her clinic Skinfiniti, carbon is used with spectra laser for treating dermatological ailments. "Carbon spectra is a popular treatment in the states and is FDA approved". She explains, "Here, carbon is used with laser. The laser is blind, so it only targets black pigments. So, if we want to treat the surface of the skin and acne, carbon is applied on the surface for the laser to be able to target the skin surface and treat it."
If it's as healthy as it's touted to be, how much should you have?
Raw Pressery says, "As with any other product, we still advice, to not overuse the lemonade and keep it up to two bottles a day as it stimulates detoxification." Fair enough. But, when should you as a consumer know when you have had enough? No one really knows. Khushalani advises caution. "Everything should be done in moderation, even though activated charcoal can have beneficial properties, it can also harm — charcoal exists in barbecued products and there are reports that caution against eating these foods as they release carcinogens in the body, it all depends on the mechanism and type of activation."
Shine like a diamond
Every few years, a new superfood takes over the collective consciousness of society. So what makes an ingredient "super"? Brand strategist Ambi Parameswaran says at one time it was lemon. "I remember my father-in-law telling me that the price of lemons had shot up. Because it was being used everywhere, in soaps, creams and cleaners. It starts with one brand and if it's a success, it means that the consumer knows the ingredient. This is followed by desperate land grabbing and there will be 20 products with it. A couple will be a success and will stay on. Others will jump on to the next bandwagon. That's what's happening with activated charcoal." Yet, when it comes to food and what people are ingesting, who gets to decide what's okay? The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Yet, confusion prevails. While Raw Pressery confirms that they have the FSSAI permits to include activated charcoal in their drinks along with other ingredients, FSSAI isn't so sure. FSSAI CEO Pawan Agarwal, says that the ingredient has been okayed by FSSAI's scientific panel as safe for human consumption. "It has been sent for approval post which it can be used in edible products in the market." Once this is done, FSSAI will indicate how much activated charcoal can go inside 100 ml of a drink, or a burger.
This throws up a grey area around an ingredient that everyone thinks is suited for them. Macrobiotic nutritionist, chef and instructor Shonali Sabherwal says FSSAI hasn't caught up with India's hurtling health revolution. Products that use 'superfoods' should come with health advisory. Speaking of a client, she says, "She suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and came to me with severe cramps. Turns out that she'd had kombucha because she thought it was healthy. But the drink contains some amount of sugar which wasn't good for her. Similarly, what if people with kidney or liver disease can't have activated charcoal? Shouldn't products have warnings? A 'healthy' product without taking into account specific health conditions, and mentioning it on the package may not be suitable to all."
Let's come back to the basics. Do we need activated charcoal in the first place? Dr Baviskar from the ER, says the body may not need detox drinks. "If you have a healthy liver and kidney and are hydrating well, your body is capable of getting rid of toxins in various ways. The human body has a complex mechanism, and will do fine on its own "with good healthy habits".
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A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli