Activated Charcoal

Contributor: Kari Skaflen
Photographer: Sarah Shreves
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This spring, the beauty world is heating up over activated charcoal. The name alone, activated charcoal, sounds alluring, mysterious even conjuring visions of Cleopatra and her coal-rimmed eyes. Then there’s the shock value of the midnight-colored shampoos and facial scrubs that promise purifying and cleansing. And to top it off, there’s something irresistibly fun and childishly naughty about taking a teaspoon-size amount of mud-like cream and slathering it all over your face. 

What is Activated Charcoal Really? 

Activated charcoal or activated carbon comes from sources such as peat, wood, or coconut shells—really any matter with a high carbon content can be used to create activated carbon. The source ingredient is charred and treated to increase its capacity for adsorption. Adsorption is the process that makes activated charcoal an effective cleanser and purifier. What adsorption really means is that chemicals bind to the surface of the adsorbing agent (in our case, activated charcoal). Absorbing is slighting different and means that chemicals are soaked up and merge with the absorbing agent.  

Saffron & Sage Activated Charcoal

How does it work?

Activated charcoal draws chemicals and impurities to itself without allowing them to change its chemical structure. In addition, activated charcoal has a large surface area per unit volume, and a matrix of pores for adsorption. These pores are able to adsorb toxins at a surface area that far exceeds their own volume. 

Surprisingly, activated charcoal isn’t a new find. A staple in the medicine cabinet of the ancient Egyptians, activated charcoal has long been known as a remedy for a variety of ailments. More recently it has become a well-known tool administered by doctors to treat poisonings and drug overdoses. When ingested, activated charcoal works by binding to toxins in the stomach, and adsorbing them before they can get into the bloodstream. 

Ok, so what’s in it for my skin? 

Piggybacking off the medical uses for activated charcoal, the health and beauty industry has been touting the benefits of activated charcoal for cleansing the skin, hair, teeth and more. The ideas is simple: If activated charcoal can cleanse our insides, it should have the same magnetic power over toxins that come into contact with the skin. Impurities on the skin are drawn like moths to a flame and adsorbed by the activated charcoal. Any impurities are then carried away with a quick rinse. 

One of the best things about activated charcoal is that it’s a natural cleanser that doesn’t rely on harmful chemicals. Activated charcoal is a part of a wave of natural cleansers taking the beauty industry by storm. Clean and chemical no longer have to go hand in hand. The days of ingredient lists that include nebulous chemicals are numbered. 

A quick Google search will reveal an abundance of activated charcoal products: soaps, facial masks, shampoos, even toothpastes. Activated charcoal is also used to filter water and there are even clever activated charcoal smoothies for your post workout treat or hangover prevention. 

It’s time to get on with the fun of slathering on an activated charcoal cleanser for a stellar complexion.