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Charcoal is all over the beauty aisle lately, popping up in face masks, pore strips, toothpaste, and deodorant. In some places, you can even find it in coffee.
Charcoal is said to trap and clear toxins from the body, which may be why it has become a trend in beauty and food products.
But can charcoal soap actually benefit your skin? Below, we break down what claims are true and what’s just marketing hype.
Whether it’s a tried-and-true skin care regimen, how often you wash your hair, or the cosmetics you’re curious about, beauty is personal.
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When browsing the beauty aisle, you may see “activated charcoal” listed as an ingredient in some products.
Activated charcoal is made by processing a material that’s high in carbon at very high temperatures and then “activating” it with steam or hot air. This process increases the material’s surface area and pores, so it’s able to bind to and absorb many types of liquids and gases.
Common ingredients used to make activated charcoal include wood, nutshells, fruit pits, peat, bone, and paper mill waste.
Activated charcoal is often used to clean water of pollutants like heavy metals, insecticides, and herbicides. It’s also commonly used in emergency rooms to prevent the gut from absorbing ingested drugs and poisons into the bloodstream. The poisons bind to activated charcoal and are swept out of the body.
Regular charcoal that you use to light your barbecue isn’t the same as activated charcoal.
Standard charcoal briquettes haven’t gone through the same activation process and contain substances that are toxic to humans.
While there’s little evidence to support their claims, some skin care companies say the absorbing power of activated charcoal can:
- remove dirt and other impurities from the skin’s pores
- “detox” or “purify” skin when used as a soap or facial cleanser
- help clear up acne
In theory, activated charcoal could bind to and suck out oils and pollutants from your pores. But in practice, it may not be true. Studies find it takes a few hours of contact with a substance for activated charcoal to fully work its magic.
Drugstore products with activated charcoal may not be “activated” enough to be effective.
A 2020 study concluded that although there’s no harm in trying activated charcoal in cosmetic products, there’s little to no evidence to support its skin care benefits.
A note of caution: Experts warn against using over-the-counter activated charcoal at home in the case of poisoning or a drug overdose, since it absorbs a fraction of toxins as activated charcoal used in hospitals.
Researchers say that activated charcoal in skin care products is generally safe to use.
However, it’s always possible to have an allergic reaction from any nonprescription skin care product. That’s why it’s a good idea to test a small amount of any new soap or cleanser on your inner 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, though, that activated charcoal supplements may flush out some medications, such as carbamazepine (Tegretol), methylxanthines, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Want to give charcoal soap a try? Here are a few popular soaps and cleansers for the face and body:
- Bioré Pore Penetrating Charcoal Bar is designed for oily and sensitive skin to draw out dirt and deep-clean your pores.
- Herbivore Bamboo Charcoal Detoxifying Soap Bar is a gentle soap for oily, combination, and blemish-prone skin. Made to target acne and clear out pores, it’s gentle enough to use on your face and body, and comes in a citrusy bergamot scent.
- Dermalogica Active Clay Cleanser contains kaolin clay to absorb excess oil and activated charcoal to remove impurities. Citrus, aloe, and broccoli extract work together to purify pores.
- Binu Binu Shaman Black Charcoal Soap moisturizes while purifying skin with a blend of activated charcoal, lavender essential oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and coconut, castor, olive, and sweet almond oils.
- French Girl Fleur De Néroli Charcoal Wash is a creamy, nonfoaming face and body wash with activated charcoal, green tea extract, aloe, and jojoba oil to soothe and clean sensitive skin.
Activated charcoal soap is made by processing 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 activated charcoal in soap theoretically binds to dirt and oil on the skin and helps clear out pores.
While there’s no good evidence that activated charcoal actually benefits skin, it’s generally considered safe to use.
Colleen de Bellefonds is a Paris-based health and wellness journalist with over a decade of experience regularly writing and editing for publications including WhatToExpect.com, Women’s Health, WebMD, Healthgrades.com, and CleanPlates.com. Find her on Twitter.