In the past few years, activated charcoal has become a common ingredient in over-the-counter beauty and health products—not to mention it’s also made an appearance in coffee, ice cream, and cookies, among other things, turning them all an elegant black. In particular, the substance has recently become a popular component in skincare, with its presence in this market expected to continue its rise for some time. There’s just one problem: There’s no proof it does any good, and in some cases it might be harmful.
Charcoal itself is simply the carbon residue left over after slow heating high-carbon-content materials like wood, coconut shells or even sugar to remove most of the water they contain. It’s lightweight, highly portable, and burns for a long time at a reliable temperature. Thanks to these properties, humans have used charcoal as fuel for thousands of years. And you know humans: If it’s around them, at some point they’re likely to try to eat it. Nobody knows exactly how or who came up with the idea, but by the time of Hippocrates (approximately 500 CE), some people were using it as toothpaste, thanks to its abrasive properties.
Documented cases of charcoal being ingested date as far back as the 1800s when documents show doctors used the substance to treat food poisoning, according to David Juurlink, a pharmacologist at the University of Toronto. When mixed with water, the stuff creates a slurry that attracts toxins to its surface, reducing the amount that goes into a person’s system. Speaking to Popular Science, Juurlink says doctors give activated charcoal to a person who has overdosed on a drug or been poisoned in another way. The slurry is administered by mouth or via a nasal tube that goes down into the stomach and attracts the dangerous toxins in an affected individual.
This system works thanks to its pores, which are all the little holes you may have noticed in charcoal briquettes. Activated charcoal has been specially treated with heat to have more of them—a lot more—which means more of its material is in contact with the outside world. This gives the stuff an incredibly high surface area—just a gram of it can have a surface area upwards of 32,000 square feet.
The toxins cling to all the surfaces of the tiny pores in a process called adsorption, and get swept out of the body along with the charcoal. Filters that use charcoal work basically the same way: As water or air passes through such a filter, the toxic particles it contains clings to the pores of the charcoal.
Its these adsorptive properties of activated charcoal that led to its use as a detox ingredient. In 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter Goop (infamous for its pseudoscience claims) recommended charcoal-infused lemonade as one of the year’s top juice cleanses, which brought the substance to the wellness limelight. (You can still find plenty of activated-charcoal claims on her website.) But here’s the thing about detoxing: It’s a total hoax. Your body is already great at removing environmental toxins and ones mixed in with the food you eat or drink as part of its regular waste processing. Evidence that this system is working well appears every time you go to the bathroom. The best thing you can do to keep it that way is to eat lots of healthy food, get exercise, wear sunscreen, and get enough sleep—basically, the usual things any health professional would recommend.
For people who are not actively experiencing an overdose, Juurlink says, drinking an activated charcoal slurry or taking activated charcoal pills probably won’t hurt them, “but it assuredly will do them no good.”
Activated charcoal could potentially be harmful if you’re taking it at the same time as your prescription meds. Its adsorptive properties could slurp up the medication’s active ingredients just the same as it would for someone experiencing an overdose of illicitly taken meds. If you’re hell-bent on taking activated charcoal, he says, “at a minimum space the charcoal out at least three or four hours from any important medications you might be taking.”
But, again, there’s absolutely no reason to be taking activated charcoal at home. It won’t detox your body or make you healthier. There’s also no benefit to putting it on your skin despite the fact that it’s now marketed as beneficial in a slew of over-the-counter skin care products.
Starting in about 2014, some skincare companies started heavily marketing charcoal-infused products with a specific focus on the acne treatment market. Because things “stick” to activated charcoal, the theory goes, the substance should be able to clear your pores of gunk and otherwise get potentially pore-clogging substances off the skin. Even Biore, maker of the classic pore strips, got in on the action with a whole line of charcoal products.
“It looks cool, it’s inexpensive and it’s not harmful… which is more than I can say for a lot of other beauty treatments” writes Michelle Wong who has a PhD in chemistry and runs a blog about the science of beauty, but there’s also no evidence it does anything, she writes.
There is “little to no” evidence to substantiate the claims skincare companies are making, according to a July 2019 article by researchers at the University of Miami. Beyond that, they write, the use of activated charcoal in skincare products is unregulated. Because these products don’t claim to treat or cure a diagnosable medical condition, the FDA isn’t forced to regulate what goes in them or how else they advertise themselves.
“Since there have been few studies regarding charcoal’s effects on the skin, these products should be used in moderation and with caution,” the University of Miami researchers write. That’s particularly true for products that promise to unblock your pores with visible results (think those oh-so-satisfying-to-remove pore strips, which come off—often painfully—and bring tons of pore-clogging gunk with them.) If it hurts or causes irritation, don’t do it, no matter how clean it seems to make your skin.
In the case of both consuming activated charcoal and putting it on your skin, there’s another big issue clinicians worry about: Since it hasn’t been shown to have any positive effect, relying on it to treat genuine illness or injury could delay you getting the help you need. In other words, if you feel sick, see a medical professional because activated charcoal can’t help you. But if you just want your face mask to be a stylish black, well, nobody’s stopping you.