Activated charcoal is not necessarily a new ingredient, but it's one that has been steadily infiltrating the beauty industry. It's worth knowing how it works and how to use it, so let's get right down to it.
Major Uses of Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal is just one form of what is broadly known as activated carbon. Activated carbon made from charcoal becomes activated charcoal, activated carbon made from coal is activated coal, and so on. While it shares a root with charcoal or coal, you cannot just buy some charcoal briquettes at the store and make your own activated charcoal, at least not without the proper precautions. More on that later.
Activated charcoal is an extremely good medium for removing impurities from whatever it's in. For example:
- In industrial electroplating, activated charcoal is used to remove organic impurities from the plating solution, to ensure that metallic plating is smooth, bright, and free of blemishes.
- In medical treatment, activated charcoal is used as an oral medication to treat poisoning due to certain kinds of substances. It's not effective against things like lithium, arsenic, or strong acids, but it can work against other poisons or drug overdoses.
- In filtration, activated charcoal is an important layer for water filters to remove impurities, both on small scale – think a kitchen water filter – and in spill cleanup and groundwater remediation. It's also used in air filters, helping to remove particles in the air you breathe through a gas mask.
If you're savvy in the industry, you've immediately recognized why activated charcoal is becoming more and more common in beauty and health products. "Removes impurities" and "binds to toxins" are some very juicy buzzwords that make it an extremely tempting ingredient for health and beauty products.
As such, it should come as no surprise that activated charcoal is a common additive for skin cleansers, facial scrubs, masks, and more. It's also used as tablets or capsules you ingest, to treat digestive problems or simply as part of a cleanse.
Does Activated Charcoal Work?
So, does activated charcoal actually work, or is it just another nonsense health ingredient people have put into their creams and cleanses just to add more buzzwords?
The answer is yes, for some things, and no for others. On the one hand, activated charcoal is extremely good at what it does in specific industrial applications. It's undeniably powerful when it filters water and air, it's good at removing impurities from chemical spills and in industrial settings.
On the other hand, there's no evidence that it does anything for digestive problems like diarrhea. See, charcoal works most effectively as a filter. If you're already having problems with the lower end of your digestive system, throwing some charcoal on top of it isn't likely to help all that much.
Charcoal toothpaste can be more effective, but it's not because of its purifying properties. Rather, activated charcoal is an effective abrasive, so it wears away at the discolored outer layers your teeth and can have a whitening effect. It's generally safe on enamel, but there there are some potential downsides - you'll have to read our post on the subject (linked above) to read about those.
The question here, though, is whether or not activated charcoal can be effective as part of a face mask, skin scrub, or another topical cleanser. We're not talking about eating it, brushing with it, or breathing through it today. So what's the deal?
Activated Charcoal in Skin Treatments
Using activated charcoal as part of a skincare regimen is safe and, potentially, effective.
We say "potentially" here because there have not yet been any rigorous scientific studies to prove one way or the other what activated charcoal may be able to do to your skin. Here's what anecdotal evidence and marketing teams will tell you can happen:
- The high surface area and porosity of activated charcoal – what makes it super absorbent – helps draw impurities, bacteria, and grime out of your pores and closer to the surface, making it easier to get a deeper cleanse when you scrub your skin.
- This same mechanism can help alleviate the cause of acne, by helping to open up and clear pores that are otherwise stuffed with the bacteria and grime that causes acne in the first place.
- Some believe that activated charcoal's ability to bind to and neutralize toxins will help with insect bites. Using it may allow it to attract, lift, and remove toxins from insect bites and stings.
So - using an activated charcoal product, like a skin scrub or a mask, can potentially help lift toxins, bacteria, and dirt from your skin. So how can you properly use an activated charcoal scrub?
Properly Using an Activated Charcoal Scrub
The first thing you need to do is decide on what kind of product you want to use. We don't recommend putting activated charcoal in everything you're using; the redundancy is just going to make it harsher on your skin, and it's not likely to have any better effect than one or two products would alone.
Your options are generally to use it as a scrub, to use it as a mask, or to use it in a cleanser. Any of these can be effective, so it's really up to you which you prefer.
Before using your activated charcoal product, you should cleanse your skin. If you're using a cleanser with charcoal in it, you're killing two birds with one stone and can use other kinds of products later if you desire.
A thorough cleansing will expose your pores as much as possible to the scrub you use afterward. The more your pores are exposed, the deeper the charcoal will be able to penetrate to draw out impurities in your skin.
Apply your charcoal product. Typically, you will want to let it sit for a few minutes, sometimes as long as 15 minutes. In part, the length you leave it sitting will depend on the other ingredients in the product. Some are harsher than others and you run the risk of damaging your skin if you leave them on too long. Others are fully organic and can be left on for hours if you really want, though it won't have much benefit after the first 10-20 minutes.
Once you've given the charcoal scrub long enough to work, it's time to remove it. You'll want to use a gentle cleanser or just water to rinse it off. This might take more effort than you expect, simply because of how charcoal is very visible. If you miss a bit, it'll be very obvious. Be thorough!
This will likely leave your skin feeling almost raw, scrubbed, and potentially dry. In order to prevent redness from setting in and minimize the potential damage of dry skin, you'll want to use a moisturizer. Again, the specific type of product you use will depend on your goals. If you're pursuing this skincare routine prior to bed in the evening, you'll want to use a product suitable for overnight moisturizing and protection. Conversely, if you're doing this first thing in the morning, you'll want to use a product that is suitable for an active day, with exercise, sun exposure, and activity is taken into account.
At this point, you're free to do whatever else you want, such as applying makeup, treating your hair, or simply going about your day or night.
Because activated charcoal scrubs can be somewhat harsh on your skin, we recommend that you limit how often you use them. In most cases, you should only use an activated charcoal skin scrub once or maybe twice per week. That said, some products are less harsh on the skin and can be used more often. Make sure to read the instructions for any product you buy, and use caution for any concoction you make at home.
DIY or Store-Bought?
You have one more question to answer before you really start working activated charcoal into your skincare routine. Do you want to just buy a product with activated charcoal in it, or should you make your own?
The DIY approach is great because it means you know everything that's in your product, and you can source all of the ingredients yourself. When you know what it is and where it comes from, you know you can trust it.
At the same time, some companies have been caught using non-activated charcoal, and even just plain black dyes, to trick people into thinking they're getting the benefits of activated charcoal. This, obviously, is rare, but it also sucks to have to worry about.
On the other hand, making anything with activated charcoal is a huge pain. The stuff gets absolutely everywhere no matter how careful you are with it, and it's surprisingly difficult to mix into various carriers.
Honestly, we recommend just buying a product with activated charcoal in it. It will still be somewhat messy, but nowhere near as messy as playing with the charcoal itself. You can also research the companies that make the products you buy to make sure they're pure and ethical, and you're not just getting dye and a promise.
The Risks of Using Activated Charcoal
To wrap things up, there's one thing you have to be aware of when using activated charcoal, and that's the risks associated with it.
The first and most minor risk is really just that it's a deep black, highly porous material. Do you know what that means? It stains very easily. People who use it in DIY toothpaste and homemade creams know that it'll leave black marks all over your bathroom, your clothes, your towels, and everywhere else it touches.
Another potential risk is that it might just dry out your skin when you use it. Activated charcoal is absorbing toxins and impurities from your skin when you use it, sure, but it's also removing natural oils and moisture. This can leave your skin dry and red.
Activated charcoal is also abrasive. It tends to be quite gritty, even the fine powdery version. This grittiness is why it's an effective tooth whitening toothpaste ingredient, but it also means it's rough on your skin. Using activated charcoal products too often might mean you damage your skin, so be careful with them.
The actual dangerous risk, however, is that of health issues. Activated charcoal is fine, but non-activated charcoal is a carcinogen that can be dangerous to inhale, to have to touch your skin, or to consume.
This is why it's not recommended that you make your own activated charcoal. You still can, but you have to be very careful to make sure you're activating all of the charcoal, not just using some mixture of activated and regular charcoal.
So, use with caution. If you're making your own DIY skin treatment, make sure you're sourcing fully activated charcoal, or making it yourself very thoroughly. If you're buying a pre-made product that uses activated charcoal as an ingredient, make sure you trust the company producing it. The last thing you want to do is trade out some skin blemishes for cancer!
How do you use activated charcoal in your daily routine? Have you found it to be effective? Has it been harsh on your skin?
We'd like to hear your stories. Tell us how you've used products with charcoal in them in the comments below, please!