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Has anyone else noticed how charcoal’s image has undergone a major facelift in recent years? Where once we associated charcoal with the heavy smoke off a grill or our grubby hands after an art class, this physically dirty substance has now become synonymous with a clean lifestyle.
There’s charcoal toothpaste, charcoal detox drinks, and perhaps the most common is charcoal-based skin care.
A quick search for charcoal soaps online reveals articles upon articles about the benefits of charcoal soaps, from clearing acne to soothing psoriasis, but there’s often little evidence provided to substantiate these hefty claims.
Let’s work on managing our expectations of charcoal. Based on what we know about charcoal’s chemical structure, which of the purported benefits are charcoal are true?
Are any of these claims backed by research? We spoke to top dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist (aka a person who knows how ingredients change and interact with each other in a product) to get the facts.
Treats oily skin?
Does it work? Maybe.
Valerie George (@cosmetic_chemist), cosmetic chemist expert and co-host of The Beauty Brains podcast says, “Charcoal has a large surface area and chemistry that is perfect for absorbing oils.”
However, the absorption qualities of charcoal haven’t been thoroughly tested on skin, just in digestive tracts, and removing oil isn’t the same as treating oily skin. If you want to try charcoal for oily skin, avoid daily use, as oil is critical to your skin’s health.
Try this instead: If you’re worried about oily skin or clogged pores, consider a clay mask. George says, “I personally am a fan of colored clays; they offer oil absorption and also contain minerals that benefit the skin.”
Does it work? Maybe.
George notes that these types of claims, made quite frequently, are vague, “I think it depends what impurity it is. I have seen studies where charcoal is capable of removing pollution particulate from skin, but it might not be effective at other times. Impurities is such a loose term.”
Try this instead: If you’re worried about environmental and pollution damage on your skin, try an antioxidant serum. This one from Paula’s Choice has antioxidants which can protect your skin from free radicals in the air.
Removes dead skin cells
Does it work? Yes.
If you’re partial to physical over chemical exfoliation, George says charcoal is an option.
She explains that, “Charcoal is a physical particulate that can help exfoliate the skin through mechanical means. Cosmetic chemists have a large selection of different charcoal particle sizes to use depending on what the product does.”
Try this instead. Physical exfoliation has fallen a bit out of style recently, as it’s easy to go overboard with the scrubbing and damage your skin.
If you’re looking to dip your toes in the chemical exfoliant waters, try the Shasta AHA Refining Acid Wash from HoliFrog. The gentle wash-off formulation may smooth sensitive skin without irritation.
Does it work? No.
George says that, “I have not seen any evidence that charcoal treats acne. It can absorb oils, which can contribute to clogged pores.”
Dermatologist Dr. Beibei Du-Harpur of @dermatology_demystified also adds that, “Aggressively cleansing to ‘detoxify’ acne-prone skin is not the most effective way to treat acne. Acne is not due to skin ‘impurities’ or ‘toxins’ and personally, I feel it can actually be quite harmful to an individual’s mental health to imply this is the case.”
Try this instead: There are a lot of options for treating acne depending on your skin type. Check out this article on best acne treatments to help determine your best options.
Treats clogged pores and reduces their size
Does it work? No.
Unfortunately, the research just isn’t there. George tells us that, “Charcoal can absorb oils, which contributes to clogged pores, but I have not seen research that it can unclog already clogged pores. I also have not seen reducing pore size as a benefit with charcoal ingredients from suppliers.”
Has firming and anti-aging benefits
Does it work? Maybe… eventually.
The logic for this claim is a bit roundabout. Some claim that because charcoal can supposedly remove environmental toxins from your skin, and these toxins can cause premature aging and wrinkling, charcoal therefore has firming and anti-aging benefits.
George notes that the theory itself might have merit, explaining that, “Pollution is a real concern for skin, and I have seen studies from suppliers of charcoal that have shown charcoal removes pollution particulate. One could postulate that by removing pollution particulate, that you help prevent premature aging, but it’s really difficult to say that a consumer would notice a huge difference over other ingredients that help with firming or improving the look of skin.”
At the end of the day this theory, while interesting, is unproven. Besides, why fight the aging process with roundabout methods when there are proven and effective methods at our disposal?
Good for psoriasis and dandruff?
Does it work? Depends.
George explains that using charcoal for these conditions would be addressing the symptom rather than treating the problem: “Since charcoal is an exfoliant, it can help remove scaly skin, which is a symptom of psoriasis, but it does not treat psoriasis. Like psoriasis, individuals with dandruff can have skin build up, and the charcoal, due to its exfoliating properties, can help remove some of the loosened skin. The charcoal itself doesn’t have any properties to treat or manage dandruff otherwise.”
Du-Harpur also notes that using charcoal for these sorts of conditions may just not be the best use of your time. She warns, “Activated charcoal, as a topical agent, is not something that I have ever used in my experience as a dermatologist thus far, for any skin condition. I have certainly never recommended it for acne or psoriasis; there are significantly more effective and evidence-based treatments for these conditions, and all the ones listed [here].”
Try this instead. Dandruff shampoos are a great option for treating dandruff. If you’re struggling with psoriasis, a dermatologist will be able to help you find the best treatment for your skin.
Does it work? No.
This claim is kind of adjacent to what charcoal can actually do, and not substantiated by research. George explains, “I have not seen any studies that speak to this. I think people associate “detox” with soothed and calmed skin.”
Try this instead. Try an oatmeal mask for proven skin soothing benefits.
Lightens acne scars
Does it work? No.
George explains that, “Any lightening activity of scars would come from mechanical exfoliation that the charcoal offers. I have not personally seen this claim, but charcoal would have no physiological activity on the scar other than exfoliation.”
Try this instead. George says “there are much better ingredients to use for treating scars and increasing overturning of the skin to improve the look of the scar, such as alpha hydroxy acids or retinoids.” Give Vitamin C a try as well!
Du-Harpur explains that, “Activated charcoal is associated with ‘detoxification’ in general due to its use in the treatment of some acute poisoning scenarios in medicine.
“In this scenario, oral ingestion of activated charcoal leads to it binding to the poisonous material in the gastrointestinal system, reducing its absorption into the bloodstream where it can cause significant harm. Perhaps due to this, charcoal is also seen in skin care products, where it is implied that it may similarly have a ‘toxin-absorbing’ effect.”
Boston Dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch (@RanellaMD) simplifies the matter, explaining, “The theory is that it is “sticky” and that because of that it removes “impurities” and helps with acne,” but notes that the research is “near nonexistent.”
This means that the properties charcoal can have internally do not necessarily carry over to external benefits. Like Hirsch, Du-Harpur explains that there currently isn’t research to support these theories.
“Unfortunately, there is no clinical evidence to back up cosmetic claims related to charcoal, except for some very small studies related to charcoal dressings and the treatment of wounds or leg ulcers.”
George has a slightly different take. “Charcoal powder is a highly absorptive material, and is certainly capable of having some skin benefits,” she says.
“Activated charcoal is well-known for its use in poison control because of its absorptive ability, but I think people forget that charcoal isn’t an intelligent material […] it is capable of absorbing anything. However, in cosmetics, it’s great at absorbing oils from the skin and exfoliating.”
Hirsch explains, “There are several products where [charcoal] is coupled as an ingredient with things that do achieve effects, like salicylic acid, which is a beta hydroxy acid that helps to clear sebum and acne, or kaolin. Unfortunately, because the data showing benefit is so lacking, there isn’t really much on best practices either.”
If you have your heart set on a charcoal product, consider a formulation with other proven ingredients that you know work well for your skin, to ensure you get some bang for your buck.
George also recommends taking the type of charcoal product you buy into account.
“I would recommend a mask that’s left on for a little bit of time, then rinsed off, if you’re interested in the oil absorbing and detoxifying properties that charcoal has. This will give it time to sit on the skin and work. Masks are also typically more gentle on the skin than cleansers and are also packed with other goodies,” she says.
There’s research to suggest that charcoal can irritate the eyes, and can irritate the stomach and skin in large amounts, so keep that in mind.
George also notes that, “If you’re using a lip product with charcoal, just make sure you do not get any in your mouth, as the charcoal particle can chip or erode enamel if the particle size and shape is not optimized to be in contact with teeth.”
In general, the biggest risk of using charcoal soap for your skin is that there won’t be any reward.
Many claims are speculative and assume that because charcoal works in one way in one part of the body, it will have the same effects elsewhere. This just isn’t true. If you’re concerned about the state of your skin, charcoal may not be the most economical option.
While there are some charcoal soaps and other charcoal products on the market that may be beneficial to the skin, that is likely because they are often paired with other ingredients that are proven to be beneficial.
There simply isn’t much research on this ingredient to know exactly how charcoal in soaps will help your skin.
George puts it nicely, “I think the biggest benefit charcoal has is that it elicits a sense of well-being. There are other ingredients on the skin care market that pack a bigger punch to improve the health of the skin.”
At the end of the day, for many of us skin care is an act of self-care, and if you feel like you’ve done something good for yourself, you’ve benefited. What’s most important is to come armed with knowledge so you can make the best decision for you.