Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid the mass of sponsored Instagram posts, or any wellness blog or magazine for the last year, you’ve probably at least heard of ‘activated charcoal.’ As a reminder, it’s the black ingredient seen in everything from toothpaste to face-masks, water bottle filters and even ice cream. The general consensus amongst marketing gurus is that the superstar ingredient has ‘detoxing’ powers capable of removing all sorts of impurities from the skin and body.
Are these claims legitimate? Or is the new darling of the wellness world just another untested, soon-to-be-out-done health fad? Let’s find out…
Made by burning carbon-containing materials (coconut shells, bamboo or wood) without oxygen into a ‘char,’ activated charcoal is a pitch-black, porous substance that can effectively bind with other substances. For this reason, it has become a common treatment for many poisonings; doctors use ‘charcoal tablets’ to treat overdoses as an alternative to stomach pumping. It works by setting off a chemical reaction in which various substances bind to the very porous surface of the charcoal and cling to it like a magnet. This ability to ‘carry out’ toxins supports activated charcoals reputation as an excellent purifier, but what about its ability in the many wellness lotions and potions on the market today?
Since its main, medical use is to soak up actual toxins in poisoning and overdose cases, many in the wellness world are now suggesting activated charcoal is a powerful skin treatment to get rid of dirt and oil, especially for those with overly oily or congested skin and in cases of acne.
This claim is iffy at best. While in theory, activated charcoal could remove more surface dirt and oil than regular skin cleansers and masks, due to its porous nature, there are in fact very few science-based studies into activated charcoals benefits when applied topically. Those studies that are published (such as this one), are often used alongside other treatments and can’t be relied on for any definitive answer. That said, many dermatologists support the ingredient, both for deep-cleansing and anti-ageing, claiming it soaks up impurities before they penetrate the skin and cause permanent damage. You only have to run a quick google search (you won’t be alone in this as over 100,000 people every month search for ‘activated charcoal’) to see claims of ‘purified complexions’ and ‘effective blackhead treatment.’ The reality is that you’re better off sticking to proven, effective treatments.
The claims that activated charcoal can also whiten teeth prove to be a similar story. Many beauty writers and bloggers have touted the positive whitening benefits of activated charcoal, but as with beauty products, this idea is merely another theoretical assumption based on the ingredients ability to draw out impurities in other ways. Again, there are no published studies showing the effectiveness of charcoal in whitening and as such, dentists aren’t sold on the idea. The American Dental Association actually warns against it due to its abrasive qualities.
As for actually ingesting activated charcoal, a lot of wellness ‘experts’ have suggested the ingredient has incredible detoxing properties than can aid in bloating and other health concerns. Charcoal has in fact gathered quite a name for itself as the IT-ingredient of the past few years. Amy McCarthy had something to say about this in her lengthy article on the ingredient for Eater. ‘Pretty much the only reason to add activated charcoal to ice cream or pizza crust is to produce that rich, Instagram-worthy black colour,’ she wrote.
The main issue with ingesting charcoal is that it cannot decipher between the good stuff and the bad stuff and therefore soaks up many vital vitamins and nutrients when added to food or drink. Many suggest using activated charcoal, in tablet form, after alcohol consumption as supposedly it works to soak up all the alcohol. Again, this has not been proven and any evidence is merely from personal testing. There are also scares that activated charcoal could render medication ineffective by absorbing those drugs, including birth control, so be wary of this.
The conclusion? Unfortunately, before more research can back the claims, it seems to be just another over-hyped health fad. If you are keen to try it out, our suggestion would be to use it topically, on the skin for a deep clean, as it appears to have had the most success here.