Activated charcoal is what’s hot these days in skincare. Traditionally, activated charcoal or activated carbon is used in medicine to treat common poisonings, and nowadays, there are other less studied uses like teeth whitening, and even use in personal care products. How does it work, and is it hype or reality?
The Hype: Why Activated Charcoal?
The hype is real. It was one of the hottest “Rising Stars” in Google’s search trends for the skincare category which looked at 2014-2016 trends. The idea of rubbing charcoal (if you have barbeque grills in mind) on your skin may not seem appealing or intuitive. We might think of children rubbing soot or charcoal on themselves and making a mess that’s hard to clean. Its marketing appeal relies on the way that activated charcoal is used in other contexts.
Charcoal is sought after for its “sticky” property. Called adsorption, what this means is that it binds to a lot of things, in this case, the “toxins” or the undesirable things like poison ingested or unwanted particles in the water. “Activating” is a process where the charcoal is made more porous (with a larger surface area) to increase its property to bind to. While there are many specialized industrial uses, the main two applications that are familiar to most people are filtration, and detoxification after ingesting poison. Water filtration systems like the popular Brita systems primarily use carbon filtering (this is why you will sometimes see black dots floating), and activated charcoal is also used in a medical context to treat acute poisoning. In both cases, the idea is that undesirable pollutants stick to the charcoal, leaving the body (or water) clean, and that’s the idea behind charcoal in skincare–to clean out the pores and the skin in this manner.
Overall, activated charcoal is effective, and cost-efficient, and is still used to treat poisoning as well as an inexpensive filtration system. These are evidence-based and have a long history of safe and effective use. Unfortunately, there are uses that border on pseudoscience, like ingesting charcoal in detox regimens, which are largely unsupported by evidence.2 There are other claims like treating hangovers, reducing cholesterol levels, which are dubious and unsupported by evidence.3 Like most things, they are not a magical panacea but have their specific uses. The million-dollar question is whether it works in skincare as an efficient way to amplify the cleansing effect as it does in water filtering and poison control.
Does it work as intended?
Generally, skincare products that contain activated charcoal in their ingredients are designed to cleanse the skin in some way. The charcoal is used to draw oil, dirt, and other micro-undesirables to it, to be rinsed off later, leaving the skin cleaner. Again, what does the evidence suggest? Unlike drugs, beauty products are not required to undergo the same rigorous testing for its efficacy before it hits the marketplace (as long as it does not make drug claims). In terms of safety, however, they do have requirements, so there is less to worry about here. Since there isn’t a wealth of clinical data to ascertain whether a skincare product or an ingredient works as intended, unfortunately, a lot of it is guesswork.
- Dermatologist Dr. Julia Carroll opines that using it in cosmetic products probably won’t hurt you, but it’s not something that she would necessarily recommend.4
- The chemist and skincare blogger Labmuffin5 also takes a similar stance in her explanation. Her conclusion? Might work…in theory, but not likely given how long many of these products remain on the skin. Nonetheless, it’s relatively cheap, not harmful, and all these products also have other more traditional ingredients that work in them anyway, so very little lost.
- Another popular blogger in the science of skincare, Musicalhouses is even less generous. She explains that charcoal products, when they do work, rely on other known ingredients that do work which is also contained in the product like salicylic acid, while the charcoal itself is a marketing gimmick. Nonetheless, she agrees that if you like the product, there isn’t any harm in using it.
Anecdotal? Guilty as charged, but the trouble is that there are very few reliable peer-reviewed studies with regards to the effect of activated charcoal for cleansing the skin.
Certainly worth a try, and unlikely to do any damage to the skin or produce irritation or allergic reactions (though there will always be some chance). In terms of direct evidence that activated charcoal is effective at cleansing the skin, there is very little of it at this time. Many of these cleansing products will contain traditional ingredients as well, so it will be difficult to ascertain whether the activated charcoal is helping or not. No reason to believe that it’s a miracle ingredient, but it has some possibilities that may in the future, have more solid evidence behind it.
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5She has a Ph.D. in chemistry, and explains the intricacies of skincare in an easy-to-understand way–with pictures!