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Recently, eating charcoal (and washing up with it) has taken off as a wellness trend. But all the while another substance has been heating up, and it’s an ingredient with a sooty reputation—basically, tar.

Shilajit is a sticky, tar-like substance found in Central Asian mountains. It’s been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years, explains Tim Martin, founder of Izo Cleanse. Now it’s showing up as an ingredient in detox products, nutritional supplements, and even spa treatments.

Its biggest claim to fame is its use in testosterone-boosting supplements, which doesn’t quite account for its new popularity among women.

What’s the big appeal?

“I take shilajit every day because it’s an organic mineral supplement that contains more than 85 minerals and trace elements and fulvic acid, which helps the body absorb these minerals,” says Amanda Chantal Bacon, the founder of Los Angeles’ super-hot juice brand Moon Juice. “Ayurvedic medicine uses it to increase the essential energy, Ojas, responsible for your sexual and spiritual power.”

Bacon adds that it will maintain metabolism as women age, increase immunity, ease inflammatory conditions, and relieve depression and anxiety. Her customers certainly agree these days. “We’ve been selling shilajit resin since we opened in 2012,” she says.

Nobody knew what it was then, but now she has people come in specifically for tins, bottles, and shots of it, and Moon Dusts (powdered supplements) that include it. Some days she sells out completely.

How sticky is it?

(Photos: Pürblack; Moon Juice)
(Photos: Top, Pürblack; Bottom, Moon Juice)

But others say the goo, while sticky in certain wellness circles, probably doesn’t have an uber mass appeal. Katherine Niefeld, a spokesperson for Pürblack Live Shilajit Resin, says the “elite healing superfood” is popular with “real supplement users,” including celebrity athletes and wellness professionals who understand it. “It’s for the holistically conscious, and it’s hard to get the raw material and process it properly,” so access is pretty limited.

It’s hard to describe what it really is anyhow. “It’s essentially scraped off rocks. People don’t quite know if it’s biological or geological,” says Martin, whose Ground and ReVitalize supplements include shilajit. “It’s considered the cornerstone of Ayurveda for boosting nutritional absorption,” and he’s confident of its results in that regard, while recognizing it’s never been tested in the West.

Then there’s the aesthetic factor. Whether a powder like Moon Juice or a resin like PurBlack, it looks like something you could use to pave a road. Even though the serving size of PurBlack is smaller than a pea, the first spoonful isn’t the easiest thing to swallow. It also requires three to five minutes of stirring into a cup or more of liquid, which tastes like medicinal tea.

Ananda in the Himalayas, an Ayurvedic luxury destination spa in India, gets around the taste factor by using shilajit in a massage and a facial. Spa manager Ritu Srivastava also cites its powerful rejuvenating properties, high mineral count and fulvic acid of the more palatable-sounding “concentrated historic plant life,” even when applied topically.

The bottom line

But Srivastava stops short of a blanket recommendation that everyone consume it. “If it’s pure and properly processed its benefits are certainly very good but advised to be taken under medical guidance rather than as a supplement.”

Lisa Hedley, an Ayurvedic expert and well-being blogger on Lah Life, concurs. “Shilajit is not something that you just willy nilly take,” she says. “It’s pretty specialized in my world.”

“I can see why people might glom onto it and say it’s the new wonder drug,” she continues. “It’s very potent and has a lot of minerals and a full compliment of things that act as rejuvenatives. It’s frequently used in formulas because it helps make nutrients more absorbable. The formula I’m most familiar with is natural Viagra for men,” as well as some for kidneys, UTIs, and arthritic conditions.

Hedley has taken shilajit in formulas, which she found effective, but doesn’t take it regularly and says she wouldn’t take it herself on its own. “I tend to be a skeptic about fads,” she concludes. —Ann Abel