ELI5: What’s activated charcoal?

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First let’s talk a little about what charcoal is — charcoal is when you take wood and you heat it up without oxygen being around. The lack of oxygen is important because you don’t want the wood to burn, you want to remove the water and other chemicals from the wood and leave behind the carbon. This oxygen-less heating process is called pyrolysis. Activated charcoal or activated carbon is charcoal that has been treated to create lots of small holes/pores within the structure of the charcoal. These microscopic holes increase the surface area. This gives the activated carbon more area to bind to things and lock them up, which is why activated carbon is useful for purification purposes. Different chemicals bind to activated carbon better or worse than one another, and you can change those properties by treating/modifying the activated carbon in different ways. You can make activated carbon using chemical activation using acids/strong bases/salts or physical activation with hot gases during pyrolysis.


There already seems to be some great answers here, but I just want to add a disclaimer. While activated charcoal has many great uses in emergency medicine, do not eat or otherwise ingest activated charcoal products if you take regular medication. Due to its ability to absorb basically…most anything, it will absorb or at least partially absorb the medicine when it’s in your stomach and system, rendering it ineffective or less effective.


Pressure cooked regular charcoal basically. Regular charcoal is made by heating up wood without oxygen. It still have the structure of wood, but it’s mostly carbon now, so it’s black. Activated Charcoal is made by forcing hot pressurized steam through the fibers of regular charcoal, clearing out the fibers and veins from when the charcoal still used to be a tree, giving it a larger surface area to absorb things. People exploit this property by using it as filters, absorb toxins, unscientific diy projects etc.


I heard that activated charcoal stops medication like birth control from working, is that true?


Also does it work in tooth paste to make your teeth whiter?