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Charcoal has been all over the beauty aisle lately, showing up in face masks, pore tapes, toothpaste, and deodorant. In some places you can even find it in the cafe.
Charcoal is said to trap and remove toxins from the body, which may be why it has become a trend in cosmetics and food products.
But can charcoal soap actually benefit your skin? Below, we break down which claims are true and what is just hype.
As you walk down the beauty aisle, you may see “activated charcoal” listed as an ingredient in some products.
Activated carbon is made by treating a carbon-rich material at very high temperatures and then “activating” it with steam or hot air. This process increases the surface area and pores of the material, so that it is able to bind to and absorb many types of liquids and gases.
Common ingredients used to make activated charcoal include wood, nut shells, fruit kernels, peat, bones, and stationery waste.
Activated charcoal is often used to clean the water of pollutants like heavy metals, insecticides and herbicides. It is also commonly used in emergency rooms to prevent the intestine from absorbing drugs and poisons that are ingested into the bloodstream. The poisons bind to the activated charcoal and are swept out of the body.
The regular charcoal you use to light your barbecue is not the same as activated charcoal.
Standard charcoal briquettes have not undergone the same activation process and contain substances toxic to humans.
While there is little evidence to support their claims, some skin care companies claim that the absorbency of activated charcoal can:
- remove dirt and other impurities from the pores of the skin
- “Detoxify” or “purify” the skin when used as a soap or facial cleanser
- help eliminate acne
In theory, activated charcoal could bind to and suck oils and pollutants out of your pores. But in practice, that may not be true. Studies show that it takes a few hours of contact with a substance for activated charcoal to fully perform its magic.
Pharmaceuticals containing activated charcoal may not be “activated” enough to be effective.
A 2020 study concluded that while there is nothing wrong with trying activated charcoal in cosmetics, there is little to no evidence to support its skin care benefits.
Warning: Experts warn against using over-the-counter activated charcoal at home in case of poisoning or drug overdose because it absorbs a fraction of toxins like activated charcoal used in hospitals.
Researchers say the activated charcoal in skin care products is generally safe to use.
However, it is still possible to have an allergic reaction to an over the counter skin care product. That’s why it’s a good idea to test a small amount of any new soap or cleanser on the inside of your arm before using it on the rest of your body or face.
Even when activated charcoal is taken orally, side effects are rare and most often include nausea and vomiting. It’s important to note, however, that activated charcoal supplements can eliminate certain medications, such as carbamazepine (Tegretol), methylxanthines, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Want to try charcoal soap? Here are some popular soaps and cleansers for the face and body:
- Bioré Pore Penetrating Charcoal Bar is designed for oily and sensitive skin to remove dirt and deeply cleanse your pores.
- Herbivore Bamboo Charcoal Detox Bar Soap is a mild soap for oily, combination and blemish-prone skin. Designed to target acne and cleanse pores, it’s gentle enough to use on the face and body and comes in a scent of citrus and bergamot.
- Dermalogica Active Clay Cleanser contains kaolin clay to absorb excess oil and activated carbon to remove impurities. Citrus, aloe and broccoli extracts work together to cleanse pores.
- Binu Binu Shaman Black Charcoal Soap hydrates while purifying the skin with a blend of activated charcoal, lavender essential oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and coconut, castor, and coconut oils. olive and sweet almond.
- French Girl Fleur De Néroli Charcoal Wash is a creamy, non-foaming face and body wash with activated charcoal, green tea extract, aloe and jojoba oil to soothe and cleanse the skin sensitive.
Activated carbon soap is made by treating a high carbon material at a high temperature and then “activating” it with hot air or steam. Its large surface area allows it to absorb toxins, which is why the activated charcoal in soap theoretically binds to dirt and oil on the skin and helps clear pores.
While there is no strong evidence that activated charcoal is actually beneficial for the skin, its use is generally considered safe.
Colleen de Bellefonds is a Paris-based health and wellness journalist with over a decade of experience writing and regularly editing publications such as WhatToExpect.com, Women’s Health, WebMD, Healthgrades.com and CleanPlates.com. Find it on Twitter.