Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/7/2021
You’ve likely noticed activated charcoal popping up in personal care products over the last few years.
From charcoal toothpastes that seek to eliminate bad breath, to charcoal pills that claim health benefits like the detoxification of your body, this substance has seen a major rise in popularity.
Its use isn’t new, however. Back in 1813, a French chemist ingested the substance mixed with arsenic and survived.
More recently, activated charcoal has been popping up in skin care products as well, and that’s exactly what we’re here to talk about.
The bottom line is, there is no evidence that activated charcoal is of any benefit when applied to the skin. But as always, we’re going to jump into more detail below.
Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is a form of carbon that is created by burning organic materials at high temperatures to create carbon. Think hardwood, coconut shells and even sugar.
Activated charcoal isn’t the carbon you see on, say, a burnt piece of toast. It is instead produced with the goal of creating as much surface area as possible for the purpose of binding to toxins—its main clinical purpose.
Once the organic material used to create the charcoal has been burned, the remaining substance undergoes a special process that creates an abundance of holes and ridges on the surface of the individual particles, contributing to its abundant binding properties.
The result is a fine black powder that can be mixed into an ingestible liquid for poisoned patients to drink.
Activated charcoal is so fine, in fact, that a single teaspoon has around the same surface area of an entire football field.
Due to its fine particles, activated charcoal is also quite easy to inhale. So, if you do handle the substance in its dry form for any reason, be careful to avoid breathing it in.
The detoxifying properties of activated charcoal require equilibrium. Too little charcoal and too much toxins can cause the activated charcoal to unbind from the toxins it’s meant to bind to.
For this reason, if you believe you require activated charcoal for detoxification of yours or someone else’s gastrointestinal tract, you should always contact a poison control center or head to the emergency department in order to ensure effective treatment.
The most common uses of activated charcoal include emergency treatment of acute poisoning, (like drug overdoses) and the treatment of water for safe consumption and use for agriculture.
Its use continues to undergo research, and there are studies that have proven benefits for the treatment of chronic kidney disease, reduction of the growth of bacteria on toothbrushes and the regulation of cholesterol levels in individuals with high cholesterol.
For situations in which gastrointestinal decontamination is necessary, activated charcoal is administered by a healthcare provider in a drink or through a feeding tube in order to adsorb contaminants along the digestive tract.
The word “adsorb” isn’t a typo — it’s used to refer to the binding of one substance to another, rather than the intake of it as in absorption.
You may notice that we didn’t make any mention of activated charcoal benefits for skin. The reason is, there is little evidence that activated charcoal has any benefit as a skincare product.
According to the National Institute of Health, activated charcoal does best at bonding to “nonpolar, poorly water-soluble organic toxins”.
Oil is not water soluble, and is also a nonpolar substance. Therefore, you should especially avoid the use of activated charcoal products on dry skin, as it can be quite effective at sucking up the oils that work to moisturize your skin.
Acne-prone skin is more susceptible to negative effects from activated charcoal, in spite of claims you may see that the substance can remove acne-causing bacteria due to its antimicrobial properties.
The products that are actually beneficial for the treatment of acne can be quite drying, meaning you want to avoid further drying out your skin.
If you do use an activated charcoal product that you find beneficial to your skin, be sure to limit its use to only a couple of times a week, and use a moisturizing product afterwards to ensure that your skin doesn’t lose too much moisture.
You may wonder about the abundance of products you’ve seen touting activated charcoal skin benefits.
The truth is, activated charcoal is cheap to produce and it looks pretty cool once applied to the skin due to its black color, making for a particularly fun application experience. This is why you’ve likely seen it in so many beauty products.
To care for your skin, you’ll want to consult with a dermatology provider for products that treat your specific concerns, like acne or aging. They’ll be able to guide you in personalized, effective skin treatments.