There’s been a lot of buzz about activated charcoal, an ingredient cropping up in face masks, anti-acne cleansers, and even dental care products. With any trendy ingredient, it’s important to find out a little more about how it actually works—and whether it’s worth all the hype—before diving in and spending your money on a new product.
Here, we discuss how activated charcoal works as a beauty treatment, share some activated charcoal products that are worth your investment, and highlight those that are best avoided.
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is made from peat, coal, coconut, or wood that has been heated with a gas, a process that makes the charcoal more porous and highly absorbent. In fact, activated charcoal can bind to harmful substances thousands of times larger than its mass.
Although the pitch-black ingredient seems like just the latest trend, activated charcoal has been around for a while. It’s a staple in hospital emergency rooms where it’s used to treat alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses. It works by attaching to toxins in the stomach (a process called adsorption), preventing them from entering the bloodstream.
When it comes to skincare, activated charcoal, in theory, works in a similar way: It likely acts like a magnet that binds to dirt, bacteria, and oil. Cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson explains, “When dirt and oil in your pores come in contact with the carbon, they stick to it and then get washed away when you rinse.”
Should you try activated charcoal products?
Unfortunately, use of activated charcoal in skincare is quite new, and therefore, research on its effectiveness is lacking. The good news is that activated charcoal isn’t absorbed or metabolized by the body, and the inert substance won’t aggravate skin allergies. Worst case scenario: it doesn’t do anything, but it won’t likely make things worse.
Given how effective activated charcoal is at absorbing toxins, it may be worth a try if you’re plagued with breakouts. If you’re feeling adventurousness and want to give activated charcoal a chance, be sure to look for products that couple activated charcoal with known acne-fighting ingredients (like salicylic acid, bentonite clay, or tea tree oil).
Activated charcoal products to try:
Activated Charcoal Soaps. Your sensitive skin will thank you. The gentle formula can be used daily on your face and body without drying out skin. Activated charcoal soaps contain no chemicals, artificial colourants, fragrances, parabens or hardeners.
Rose en Bos Activated Charcoal Bar Soap (R39 from Faithful to Nature. Find it here)
Kalyan Bamboo Charcoal Soap with Tea Tree (R27 from Faithful to Nature. Find it here)
O’live Activated Charcoal & Cedarwood Soap (R52 from Faithful to Nature. Find it here)
Activated Charcoal Face Scrubs. Activated charcoal draws impurities, dirt & excess oil out of the skin, giving the pores a gentle deep cleanse. And these scrubs are much easier on the skin. All skin types can use these products
Hey Gorgeous Activated Charcoal Facial Scrub (R125 from Faithful to Nature. Find it here)
Mud and Face Masks: While it might sound like something leftover after the braai, but activated charcoal is a potent ingredient, great for reducing inflammation, soothing and calming skin and removing dirt, especially in oily and combination skin.
Homespun Apothecary Himalayan & Activated Charcoal Mud Mask (R105 from Faithful to Nature. Find it here)
Activated charcoal products to skip:
Activated charcoal products designed for internal use should always be taken under medical supervision. Although they’re often marketed as “detoxifying,” these products may do more damage than good with adverse effects ranging from vomiting to decreased nutrient absorption. Hospitals administering activated charcoal to patients are precise with their dosage and are able to carefully monitor the patient. It’s much harder to achieve this kind of precision with a DIY effort.
Activated charcoal juice. You may have seen murky, black drinks cropping up at your local juice bar. These activated charcoal-laden juices, lemonades, and smoothies are created under the premise that drinking activated charcoal will work like it does in the hospital–to quite literally detoxify us.
While activated charcoal will bind to toxins in the stomach, these concoctions are best taken under the supervision of a nutritionist or medical professional. Naturopathic physician Judy Fulop explains that activated charcoal taken internally can be too effective. Its adsorption abilities don’t discriminate, meaning that charcoal juice may also bind to important medications you’re taking and to the nutrients in the juice, rendering both unusable for the body.
Activated charcoal pills. Capsules packed with activated charcoal are widely available both online and in pharmacies. Like all activated charcoal products designed for internal use, these should be taken under the supervision of a medical practitioner (if at all). It’s also worth noting that the activated charcoal in OTC supplements may not be pharmaceutical-grade like the kind used in hospitals. Adverse effects may include diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and decreased absorption of vitamins and minerals.
Activated charcoal toothpaste. The trendy ingredient is also promoted as an all-natural whitening treatment with claims that it can safely remove stains and plaque. Unfortunately, there’s no research proving activated charcoal is effective at these endeavors. Moreover, activated charcoal may actually do harm to teeth: Dr. Kim Harms, DDS and spokesperson for the American Dental Association, explains, “like any abrasive, we’re worried about the effects on the gums and enamel on the teeth. We don’t know about the safety and effectiveness of it.”
Bottom line: Activated charcoal may be worth incorporating into your beauty regimen, but charcoal-infused beverages are not a cure-all and should be used only under medical supervision. As far as your teeth are concerned, better stick to that trusty tube of Colgate.