Activated charcoal is a trend in health because of the highly porous nature of the substance. It's a great filter, so people use it for everything from facial scrubs to teeth whitening.
It works, that much is true. It might not work the way you think, but it will work eventually. There's just one issue: it's messy!
Activated charcoal is a very, very fine powder made up of, well, charcoal. Any extremely fine powder has the potential to get everywhere, and with something as stark black as charcoal, you might worry that it will stain. In fact, one of the biggest complaints with the substance is that it stains everything it touches!
So, is that true? What does it stain, and what can you do about it?
Does Activated Charcoal Powder Stain?
Yes, activated charcoal can and will stain just about anything it touches. In fact, a ton of advice, even from people selling it and thus promoting it as positively as possible, is about mitigating those stains. So what's going on? WHY does it stain?
Activated charcoal powder, in its pure form, is a very, very fine powder made up of very porous and abrasive particles. The extreme porosity of the particles are why it's so absorbent, and the sharp edges of those particles are why it's so abrasive. You can see both in microscopic imaging of activated carbon.
Three factors combine to stain things activated carbon touches.
First, it's a very, very fine powder. This means it can get into very tiny cracks in the porcelain, in the fibers of threads that make up clothing, and in tiny cracks and cavities in your teeth. It can, essentially, get pretty much anywhere, and leave traces of itself in those places. It's also very light and dry, so if you do something like, say, sneeze or cough in the direction of the powder it can fly everywhere.
That alone wouldn't be terribly bad, if not for number two: it's black. The deep black color of activated charcoal stands out from pretty much everything, including the white of your teeth and pink of your mouth, the colors in the clothing you wear, and the white enamel of your sink. Even a tiny bit, like what makes its way into the cracks in any of those surfaces, will stand out in comparison.
Third, activated charcoal is abrasive. That's a positive benefit in cleaning and cleansing, and it's a huge part of why it makes an effective tooth whitening treatment. However, that same abrasiveness can wear away at the protective outer layers of things like veneers, nails, and your sink. It won't be damaging immediately, but over time it can create its own cracks and fissures, which it then lingers in to stain.
All three of these things combined are why activated charcoal is so much more likely to stain things it touches.
Will Activated Charcoal Stain X?
Let's think about different items and surfaces, and whether or not charcoal will stain them.
Teeth? No, not really. When you first brush on the charcoal, your entire mouth will be very, very black, but you can then rinse it off. A before/during/after image might look something like this:
It's slightly possible that charcoal can stain teeth after prolonged use. If the abrasiveness of the charcoal powder wears away at the enamel of your teeth and gets into the dentin, it can stain that dentin, and be very difficult to remove. That said, you're unlikely to run into this problem unless you're brushing three times a day with pure charcoal powder. Normal toothpaste with charcoal in them aren't as abrasive and are safer for your enamel. Also, if you've worn away that much enamel, you're going to have other problems long before staining is a concern. It'll hurt, for one.
The same goes for veneers. Charcoal can eventually wear away at a veneer enough to get underneath and stain it, but that's not likely to happen for a long time and with dedicated application, which you shouldn't be doing anyway. Using charcoal toothpaste as directed won't risk this problem unless a veneer is cracked or something.
Gums? Also not really. Again, when you're initially brushing, it will work its way deep into the cracks between tooth and gums, as well as into cracks in your lips and inner lining of your mouth. However, your mouth is good at clearing that stuff out. As long as you rinse effectively, very little charcoal will remain. Deep cracks in your gums might retain some of it, but it won't be stark black, more like small gray/black spots you need to brush to remove. Be sure to brush with just water for the best effect at removing it.
The same goes for your skin. Activated charcoal can work its way pretty deep into the cracks in your skin, but you'll always be able to remove it with some soap, water, and scrubbing. An activated charcoal facial scrub won't leave you looking like you're wearing blackface or anything.
Clothing? Very much so. As we mentioned above, charcoal is very fine, and can work its way deep into the cracks in fiber, which makes up the threads that make up the clothing and fabrics you wear.
It's not a stain the same way a dye will stain the fabric itself; it's just powder on the surface. The problem is, it's very fine and works its way very deep, so it's very difficult to remove entirely.
In order to remove activated charcoal from something like a t-shirt or pair of pants, follow this process.
- Spread paper towels, rags, or something else disposable or that you don't mind staining around your work area, to prevent staining other fabrics or surfaces you want clean.
- Remove whatever article of clothing got stained.
- Use a detergent or stain remover pre-treatment from the inside of the fabric, opposite the stain. If you apply it from the stained side, it might soak deeper in and make the stain harder to remove.
- Let the treated stain sit for several minutes, as indicated on the container of the treatment. This is usually 2-10 minutes.
- Pour a small amount of liquid detergent over the stain. Just use a little bit; you don't need a lot of soap here, and soaking the entire garment might make your washer overflow later.
- Using a small sponge, toothbrush, or other implements, pat – do not scrub – at the stain. A sideways movement will work the charcoal deeper into the fabric.
- Wash your garment. Use the warmest setting on your washer that your garment can handle (don't use hot if it says cold only). Add bleach if possible, though that might not be a good idea for colored clothes. Wash the item alone, to avoid getting charcoal on other items you add in the same load.
- When the clothing is washed, before drying it, inspect it. If the stain is still visible, try using some rubbing alcohol, still patting with a sponge or brush. Run it through the wash again.
- Repeat this process until the stain is gone, then dry the clothing.
Obviously, it's better to prepare and be careful with charcoal than to go through this process every day. When you're using activated charcoal, try to get a preparation rather than pure powder. Toothpaste with charcoal already in it, for example, is much easier to contain than the powder itself. It will still stain if the toothpaste drips on your clothing, but it won't be nearly as bad.
You might consider spreading rags or paper towels out around your sink – and removing your shirt, wearing an apron, or otherwise protecting your clothing – when you brush or use a charcoal scrub. Exercise due caution, in any case.
Surfaces? Possibly. Charcoal can "stain" any surface with cracks or holes it can get into. A stainless steel countertop will be safe from everything but the abrasion. A porcelain sink will be safe unless it's cracked or stained with a build-up that itself gets stained with charcoal. In fact, using charcoal can help clean a sink!
You're more at risk staining something like carpet, wood, or tile grout than you are a typical sink. These kinds of stains can be difficult or impossible to remove, though, so be very careful with the charcoal.
Oh, and one more thing. Be EXTREMELY careful if you spill charcoal powder. Since it's a powder, your first instinct might be to vacuum it up, but that can be a huge mistake. Vacuums have filters, but those filters are generally not fine enough to catch a very small particle-like charcoal.
What this means is that you vacuum up the charcoal, and the charcoal flies through the vacuum and out the exhaust vent. Suddenly, instead of a small spill of powder, you have a cloud of powder landing on every surface in your room. It's terribly difficult to deal with at that point, so avoid it!
The exception is if you have a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which will be sufficient for catching the fine charcoal particulate. In that case, it's fine to use, just be careful about vacuuming with a brush or a rubbing motion that might rub the particulate deeper into the surface you're cleaning.
How to Avoid Activated Charcoal Stains
In general, it's not too difficult to avoid staining things with activated charcoal. Your best friend is going to be moisture.
Our primary recommendation is to avoid using pure charcoal powder whenever possible. Unless you're very careful, you're probably going to spill bits of it around, and it has a way of getting everywhere if you let it.
If you have no alternative, make sure to cover any surface that could stain with something like paper towel or rags.
Avoid using more charcoal powder than you need. A quarter teaspoon is more than enough to clean your teeth.
Mix the charcoal powder with a few drops of water to form a paste, so it's less like a powder and is more difficult to lose control over. This is especially relevant for using it for brushing your teeth.
A better idea, though, is to simply use a product that has charcoal suspended in it, rather than charcoal directly. A facial scrub product with charcoal in it will have that charcoal suspended in a lotion-style base, which makes it easier to remove from surfaces and easier to control and avoid getting on surfaces in the first place. Likewise, using a charcoal toothpaste is easier to control and manage than using charcoal in place of toothpaste.
Also, be as careful and contained as you can be when rinsing off charcoal, whether it's on a facial scrub or as a toothpaste. Spitting it can get it everywhere, so lean close to the sink, and be careful when you're rinsing your face to avoid splatters. On the plus side, tiny splatters of a charcoal solution in water will be a lot easier to clean up with a simple paper towel than the charcoal itself.
Finally, avoid using charcoal too often. It can still erode your tooth enamel or remove the protective outer layers of skin, exposing more sensitive layers beneath. It's not going to stain your skin any more than usual, but it might make sensitive skin irritated. Just be careful with it, and if you notice any irritation or sensitivity of your skin or teeth, lay off the scrubs and consult with a dentist.