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What's up with "active charcoal?"

edited August 2014 in Ask the Beauty Brains
This website has taught me to verify if the active ingredients touted in products are actually proven to address the claims that companies make for them. Active charcoal is everywhere in facial products right now - masks, face washes (I don't think I've seen an active charcoal face cream yet though). However, beyond this article, I haven't found anything addressing whether or not it actually meets its claims to absorb purities.

To summarize, the article suggests that active charcoal's main allure is primarily in its marketing. It is pitch black and exotic looking, and appeals for some reason because of this distinctiveness. Otherwise, active charcoals are used to absorb impurities. Embarassingly quick online searches have shown me that this active charcoal can be used to absorb ingested poisons (how Early Modern!). Though this hasn't been tested on the skin, the idea is that its absorptive properties will somehow accomplish the same.

I've used the Origins active charcoal mask, which I do find tightens my pores (it has clay in it) but certainly doesn't draw anything visibly out of them. I've also used the Lush Coalface cleanser, but I think the graininess of the charcoal does more than anything. I'm wondering what all yalls think?


  • Krunce, I applaud your skepticism! 

    Charcoal is known for its medicinal properties and is also purported to purify skin, fight acne, whiten teeth, and replace black eye makeup. However, when you look at the science behind it, there’s little evidence that it’s effective as a beauty ingredient. In fact, in some cases it can even be dangerous. Let’s look at these beauty benefits one at a time. 

    Purify skin
    A quick web search reveals numerous do-it-yourself charcoal mask recipes. The story goes something like this: charcoal absorbs toxins so if you use it as a mask it will suck all the nasty stuff out your skin. The truth is that your body does not detoxify itself through your skin (that's the job of the liver) so a charcoal mask will NOT remove toxins. (Unless you’re talking about insect bites. There is data suggesting charcoal is effective in that regard.

    Fight acne 
    Charcoal is a good absorbent and it’s used industrially to purify hydrocarbon mixtures. Although I’ve never seen any data on how it performs, it makes sense that a charcoal mask could help sop up excess skin oil. Since excess sebum is a contributing factor to acne it’s theoretically possible that using such a mask could help reduce acne. I was unable to find any data comparing charcoal to more conventional beauty ingredients or approved over the counter drugs like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide so I don’t know if it really works but it probably won’t hurt either. 

    Whiten teeth
    Given its gritty powder form, charcoal can be used as an abrasive to whiten teeth. (Again, there are plenty of online references to people doing just that.) However, I can’t find any clear cut data to indicate whether or not this practice is safe for tooth enamel. One study reported in the British Dental Journal ( says that "local Malaysians who were applying charcoal and salt with their forefinger to clean the teeth and found that all the patients had distinct forms of abrasion on the labial surfaces of the teeth.” Likewise, Dr. Sarah Thompson, DDS says "I have seen no conclusive scientific evidence that activated charcoal actually works for teeth whitening.” She also warns against using charcoal on porcelain veneers because of the potential for staining. 

    On the other hand, Dr Doris A. Ferres, does recommend brushing with activated charcoal.  

    Without proof that charcoal won’t abrade tooth enamel I’d be very nervous about using it as a whitening agent (especially when there are so many other products which have been proven safe.) 

    As a replacement for black eye makeup
    This is another claimed use which I find disturbing. You should take care when applying ANY chemical near your eyes. Contaminated materials have been known to cause eye infections, even blindness. This is one of the reasons that colorants are the most tightly regulated of all cosmetic ingredients. Just because activated charcoal is safe for occasional ingestion doesn’t mean it’s been vetted for use as a pigment in eye makeup. Again, I see no need to take the risk when there are plenty of safe alternatives. 
  • Randy, thank you for your answer!

    I'm glad to hear that my internet research skills aren't completely useless, and that there is, in fact, no data on the benefits of active charcoal for skins to either absorb excess oil or "remove toxins." This last, to me, seems like a somewhat disturbing blind transferral of the detox fad to skincare.

    In that case, I think I'll use up the rest of my active charcoal products since I like them and they have much less charcoal than they do other active ingredients. 
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