The in vivo phenobarbital removal characteristics of three brands of activated charcoal (Actidose, Charcoaid, Superchar) were studied in normal volunteers using a system analysis approach. The subjects received a 200-mg dose of oral or intravenous phenobarbital followed by a single oral dose of 30 g of one of the three charcoals in a randomized crossover design. The relative merits of the three charcoals in enhancing the removal of oral and intravenous phenobarbital were assessed using a system analysis approach. The removal clearance, time to peak (tp), peak removal clearance (Rmax), percentage of dose removed (PCT∞), and phenobarbital removal clearance (CLr) were calculated for the oral and intravenous treatments. Superchar had a pulse-like effect, with the shortest tp and the largest Rmax. Actidose and Charcoaid had similar effects, with Actidose inducing slightly greater phenobarbital removal. Superchar has the highest surface area and relative percentage of surface hydroxyl groups, whereas Actidose has the lowest surface area and relative percentage of surface hydroxyl groups of the three charcoals studied. Although correlations between the in vitro and the in vivo phenobarbital adsorption characteristics of the three charcoals may be difficult due to the presence of preservatives and palatibility enhancers in the commercial preparations, it appears that the in vivo effectiveness decreases as the surface area and the concentration of surface hydroxyl groups decrease. The proposed system analysis approach requires fewer assumptions than methods based on compartmental or physiologic approaches and has the advantage of describing the phenobarbital removal in a dynamic manner.