Not to be confused with BBQ charcoal, activated charcoal is an incredibly adsorptive material that can bind to pathogens, gases, and chemicals.
This property gives it many uses ranging from treating tooth infections to purifying water. But, with so many brands of activated charcoal on the market, how are you supposed to know which one is best?
Here’s the definitive answer on which activated charcoal is best, including why coconut shell activated charcoal is better than hardwood.
I’ll also go into detail about how to choose activated charcoal, going over properties like surface area, pore size, ash content, particle size, iodine number, and more.
At a Glance: Best Activated Charcoal Brands
- Best overall: Charcoal House Health powdered activated charcoal – Check on Amazon
- Best for topical use: Coal-Conut powdered activated charcoal – Check on Amazon
- Best on a budget: MultiVita hardwood activated charcoal powder – Check on Amazon
- Best granular: Envirosupply granular activated charcoal – Check on Amazon
- Best capsules: Nature’s Way activated charcoal capsules- Check on Amazon
Best Brands of Activated Charcoal
When choosing the best brands of activated charcoal, I looked at factors like coconut or hardwood-based, how much lab testing information they reveal, surface area, iodine number, ash content, mean particle diameter, and where the activated charcoal is made.
Charcoal House Health Activated Charcoal Powder
- Derived from: coconut
- Surface area: 1600 m2/g
- Iodine number: 1500
- Acid soluble ash: 1%
- Mean particle size: 8-15
This is one of the few brands of activated charcoal which shares info about the quality of their products on the actual label. It’s not surprising that they share this info since the quality is impressive.
The surface area of 1600 m2/g and iodine number of 1500 is a lot higher than most other brands – which means this product should do a much better job of adsorbing impurities such as chemicals.
It’s also a very pure activated charcoal product with just 1% acid-soluble ash. If you are looking for activated charcoal for beauty or internal detoxes, then this is particularly important.
The downside is that this activated charcoal isn’t cheap. The largest container is only 24oz, so you won’t even save money by buying in bulk.
Coal-Conut Activated Charcoal
- Derived from: coconut
- Iodine number: 1250
- Mean particle size: 7
While this brand of activated charcoal isn’t as well-known as others, it is a very high-quality product derived from coal. The brand lists the iodine number as 1250, which means it has a high adsorptive ability. The ash content isn’t listed, but it should be pure as the product is made from coconut shells.
The property which makes this activated charcoal stand out from other brands is the tiny mean particle size of just 7 microns. It feels like talcum powder and is great for external use on skin. Of course, you can still use it internally.
This product is affordable considering the quality and is available in various bulk sizes.
MultiVita Hardwood Activated Charcoal Powder
- Derived from: hardwood
- Surface area: 1400-1800 m2/g
- Iodine number: 900
- Total ash: 3-6%
Most activated charcoal sold in bulk is granular, meaning it is too abrasive and chunky for topical uses. This activated charcoal by Multivita is an exception. It is very affordable and comes in packages of 2lbs. The AC is packaged in Mylar bags, which are air-tight and waterproof.
This is far from the best quality of activated charcoal (which isn’t surprising considering the price). However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the quality is better than more expensive “premium” brands marketed for detoxes.
The reason I trust this one more is that they list their product information. The iodine number (900) isn’t fantastic, but it does have a very large surface area for adsorption of 1400-1800 m2/g.
If you use a lot of activated charcoal and want one that is suitable for both internal and external use and water filtration, this is one of the best options on a budget.
Nature’s Way Activated Charcoal Capsules
- Derived from: Coconut
- Amount per capsule: 280mg
- Capsules per bottle: 100
Nature’s Way is a reputable brand that makes supplements in the USA. Their activated charcoal is incredibly popular. It contains only activated charcoal from coconut shells, and no additives or fillers like many other brands of capsules do.
Note the Amazon description and label for this product are a bit confusing. A jar contains 100 capsules. A serving contains 560mg. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll see that a serving is two capsules. So, each capsule contains 280mg. Honestly, that’s on par with all activated charcoal capsules. If you were to fit 560mg of AC into one capsule, it would be huge and hard to swallow.
Country Life Activated Charcoal Capsules
- Derived from: Coconut
- Amount per capsule: 260mg
- Capsules per bottle: 100
Country Life is one of my favorite brands for supplements. Almost all of their supplements are made in the USA, and they are committed to sustainability. They are high-quality and, just as importantly, of consistent quality.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dig up lab testing info for their activated charcoal. I did find that it’s made from coconut, which means it probably has a low ash level and effective at adsorbing. It’s very finely ground, so you could open the capsules and use this AC for salves or face masks as well as taking it internally.
Intralabs Granular Activated Charcoal
- Derived from: coconut
- Surface area: 1500 m2/g to 3000 m2/g
- Particle size: 6mm to 2.3mm
Here’s another brand of activated charcoal that isn’t as well-known, probably because they market their products for aquariums and not for trendy detoxes. The company is based in the UK and specifically focuses on products like sea salts, clays, and minerals.
Even though this activated charcoal is labeled for aquarium use, it is still suitable for other uses where you’d want granular activated charcoal, such as DIY water filters.
EnviroSupply Granular Activated Carbon
- Derived from: coconut
- Iodine number: 1100
- Total ash: Max 4%
- Particle size: 6mm to 2.3mm
EnviroSupply makes granular activated charcoal for aquariums, but it has been tested to meet food-grade standards. Because it is granular, you won’t be able to use it for topical uses like salves. However, it is great for making your own water filters or other emergency uses.
One thing that stands out with this brand of activated charcoal is that they list their product’s laboratory info. The iodine number is 1100, which means it has good adsorption abilities.
The ash is a bit high (still better than most hardwood-activated charcoal), and the pH is higher (less acidic) than human skin. Still, you probably aren’t going to use granular activated carbon on your skin anyway.
The EnviroSupply activated carbon is available in bulk packaging for very good prices. It’s a good option if you want to have lots of AC on hand for purifying water (such as in emergencies) but don’t want to spend a fortune.
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Also known as activated carbon, activated charcoal is a highly porous material. It is made by taking a carbon material (such as wood) and burning it in an oxygen-less environment to produce charcoal. The charcoal is then processed further to remove impurities, increase surface area, and reduce pore size.
Choosing Activated Charcoal
You can’t tell the quality of activated charcoal simply by looking at it. Rather, the best brands of activated charcoal test their product using the ASTM International testing process. Good brands will publish the results of these tests, such as on the label or their Amazon page.
Below are the most important properties to look for when choosing a brand of activated charcoal.
Surface Area of Activated Charcoal
One of the properties that make activated charcoal so effective in adsorbing impurities is its high surface area. Activated charcoal is made of such tiny pieces that just a single spoonful of it can have the surface area of a football field. As a general rule, the higher the surface area, the more impurities the activated charcoal will adsorb.
Typically, activated charcoal will have a surface area of 800 to 1,200 meters squared per gram (m2/g). Some “super activated” charcoal have surface areas of up to 3,500 m2/g.
Unfortunately, most brands of activated charcoal don’t list their surface area. Look for brands that do share this information as it is a sign of a good-quality product.
Activated Charcoal Pore Size (Porosity)
The other most important feature of activated charcoal is pore size. Adsorption only occurs when the pore size is slightly larger than the molecules that are being absorbed. Thus, the pore size of the activated carbon must match the size of what you want to absorb.
For example, some cheap brands of activated charcoal are made in a way that produces large pores. These pores would absorb large impurities (such as algae in water). They would not be effective in removing smaller impurities such as volatile chemicals or viruses.
Activated charcoal pores are divided into three sizes:
- Micro pores: Less than 2 nanometers
- Meso pores: Range from 2-50 nanometers
- Macro pores: Range from 50 to 2,000 nanometers
In general, you want activated charcoal with a high amount of micropores. These will be most effective in trapping gases, bacteria, mold, toxins, and chemicals. The pore size (as well as properties like pore volume and radius) vary depending on how the activated charcoal was made.
Activated charcoal made from coconut shells usually has more micropores than other types of activated charcoal, which is one reason why coconut shell activated charcoal is considered best (more on that later). (1)
Ash Content of Activated Charcoal
Ash is what is left over after activating the charcoal. These ashes can include minerals, aluminum, and sand. You do not want a lot of ash in your activated charcoal; the ash can reduce effectiveness and leach unwanted substances.
Sometimes activated charcoal brands list their total ash content. However, soluble ash content is more important, as this indicates how much ash will leave the activated charcoal in water or acid.
Typical ash levels:
- Coconut shell activated charcoal: 2-3%
- Hardwood activated charcoal: 5-15%
- Coal activated charcoal: 8-15%
Mean Particle Diameter (Fineness)
Activated charcoal is classified by how finely ground its particles are.
The fineness is measured as mean particle diameter (mpd). While there might be some larger and smaller particles in the activated charcoal, the number gives you a good idea of how fine or coarse the product is.
Fine-grain activated charcoal is better for topical uses like skin masks.
Coarser activated charcoal is abrasive, so not ideal for topical use. However, it is a good choice for things like DIY water filters because the larger particles are less likely to leak through the filter medium.
*Sometimes “mesh size” is used instead of mpd. A higher mesh size = a smaller mean particle diameter.
Activated charcoal fineness:
- Fine: Below 15 microns (less than 800US mesh)
- Medium: 15-30 microns (800 to 490US mesh)
- Course: 30-45 microns (490 to 325US mesh)
- Granular: 45 to 180 microns (325 to 80US mesh)
Another number you will see listed on good brands of activated charcoal is the iodine number. This is a measurement of how much iodine 1 gram of the activated carbon can absorb when the iodine concentration is 0.02N. Iodine number gives a good indication of how “active” a particular AC product is. Typical activated charcoal products have iodine numbers ranging from 600 to 1100.
As a general rule, a high iodine number indicates good-quality activated charcoal that will be better at adsorbing small particles. However, remember that activated charcoal can only adsorb materials slightly smaller than its own pore size. Just because the AC adsorbs lots of iodine, it doesn’t mean it will adsorb the impurity you want to remove. (8, 9, 10, 11)
Powdered vs. Capsule Activated Charcoal
Powdered activated charcoal is generally cheaper per gram of product. It is also more versatile as you can use it externally, internally, or for things like DIY water filters. However, if you primarily want to use activated charcoal for stomach bugs, gas, or other internal uses, capsules are much more convenient to use.
I keep some bulk activated charcoal at home to use for poultices and have some activated charcoal capsules in my first aid kit.
Wood vs. Coconut Activated Charcoal
Activated carbon is usually made from coal, wood, or coconut shells. Coal-derived activated carbon tends to be very ashy and doesn’t adsorb as well. Thus, the best materials for activated charcoal are hardwood and coconut. Of the two, coconut is usually better because it has more micropores and less ash.
Hardwood Activated Charcoal
To make hardwood activated charcoal, hardwood trees are cut down, pulverized, and turned into activated charcoal with chemicals (usually phosphoric acid or zinc chloride are used).
The process creates activated charcoal with larger pores (meso pores). This means hardwood-activated charcoal is good at removing large impurities, such as ones that cause bad tastes or odors in water. It won’t be as effective in removing small chemicals or other tiny impurities.
The chemical activation process also leaves more residual ash in the finished AC. Expect hardwood-activated charcoal to have at least 5% ash content.
Another issue is that hardwood-activated charcoal is fairly soft. When used for water filters, it can wear down fairly quickly.
- Larger pores make it effective for removing larger impurities
- Good at removing bad tastes from water
- Not many micropores; won’t remove small impurities
- Higher amount of ash
- Some heavy metal residue
- Trees must be cut down to make
- Soft; will wear down fairly quickly
Activated charcoal from coconut is made with a different activation method than hardwood. The method often involves steam instead of just chemicals. This process creates more small micropores: 85-90% of coconut AC is micropores. The micropores mean coconut AC absorbs small impurities – including volatile organic chemicals – better.
The activation process also means that less ash is left in the final AC. Less ash means purer activated charcoal. The final product is much harder and more durable than hardwood AC.
Another reason to choose coconut-activated charcoal is that coconut shells are a renewable resource; no trees need to be killed.
- Mostly made of micropores
- Micro pores can remove tiny impurities, including chemicals
- Less ash and impurities in final product
- Almost no heavy metal residue
- Renewable resource
- Very hard; won’t wear away quickly
- Not as effective at removing large impurities