What's The Deal With Charcoal?


As with all origin stories, the legend of activated charcoal starts with a miracle. A doctor is working the night shift in the ER, and a patient comes in experiencing a nasty drug overdose. When the doctor gives the patient a good dose of activated charcoal, the drug gets absorbed in the charcoal, and passes through the body without harm. The patient lives to tell the tale. Incredible, right?

Since it works so well against ingested toxins, the logic leap is that it might work just as well to detox the body topically. And leap the beauty industry has. Activated charcoal is everywhere! It’s made by taking bone, coconut shell, peat, coal, olive pits or sawdust, and heating it at very high temperatures. A chemical reaction happens in this heating process that gives it porous nooks and crannies, and an increased surface area—in fact, it’s estimated that one teaspoon of activated charcoal has a larger surface area than a football field. But for all the charcoal heralding products on the market, there aren’t really any scientific studies to back up its efficacy beyond emergency treatment. In fact, researchers have noticed some pretty egregious unsubstantiated claims on charcoal personal care products. Let’s get to the bottom of it. Should you use charcoal…

On your face?

Some charcoal skincare reviews describe the ingredient as an oil magnet, but a more accurate description is that it behaves like a sponge and sops up oil. “Any topical cream or serum that has absorbent properties will remove topical oils,” says Dr. Manish Shah, biomedical engineer and plastic surgeon. “Activated charcoal is extremely porous, and this allows it to bind to or absorb more oil and organic chemicals.” Healthline notes that charcoal is negatively charged, which might help it attract positively charged debris. (It’s similar to how the Ziip’s Total Clearing setting claims to work.)

However, Dr. Yunyoung Claire Chang at Union Square Dermatology adds it’s all just speculation. “Though it may theoretically cleanse the pores, there is no scientific evidence that it actually works to purify the skin or remove dirt and oil.” Instead, Dr. Chang recommends acne-fighting mainstays like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Another great (and scientifically tested) option for oily skin is bentonite—the mattifying, oil-absorbing clay in masks you already love. This study notes bentonite clay is a better oil absorber than activated charcoal, which is why it’s often used to supplement effects in charcoal products—Glamglow, Origins, and Paula’s Choice masks, for example. Dr. Shah recommends the Peter Thomas Moor Irish Mud Mask, which has activated charcoal and clay.

On your teeth?

You might be more concerned about safety for things you put in your body rather than on it. (Rightfully.) So let’s start with this: The American Dental Association is on the fence about whether or not it’s good for you. And a verdict on efficacy hasn’t been reached by the very few studies that exist on it, either. This one, published by the Academy of General Dentistry, found that charcoal powder can get embedded in tiny cracks or ridges in the teeth to actually stain them black. Another, from Brazilian researchers, notes that while most charcoal toothpastes do effectively whiten teeth, so do traditional whitening methods. And since activated charcoal powder is more abrasive on teeth than a non-charcoal whitening toothpaste is, you might want to stick with the latter.

One place charcoal might actually work better than other existing oral care practices is as a breath freshener. “Most breath fresheners such as mouth rinses merely mask over odors as opposed to eliminating the source of the problem,” notes Dr. Jon Marashi, an LA-based dentist. “Charcoal has been used to absorb odors, and it has the advantage of mechanical debridement of plaque, one of the primary causes of bad breath, from the surface of teeth.” If you’re struggling with bad breath, charcoal might be worth a try—but be cautious if you have particularly sensitive teeth, and don’t use it with every brush. Dr. Marashi feels good about the Hello Activated Charcoal Toothpaste, but if you’re not fully convinced by charcoal toothpaste, don’t worry—we’re not either.

On your pits, hair, and anywhere else?

Look, who knows. Maybe? With the limited amount of charcoal studies, it’s hard to tell. It doesn’t seem like a high-risk choice for shampoo or deodorant, but also not something you should shell out money for immediately. If you’re asking about charcoal drinks, smoothies, or supplements, just remember that not only have these not been proven to work, but they are also easy to misuse. Charcoal doesn’t know what’s a toxin and what’s a helpful nutrient—ingesting activated charcoal could get rid of important bacteria your body needs for digestion. Best to do it with the supervision of a doctor—and for emergencies only.

Photo via ITG