Humans have been creating and using charcoal for quite a while now, going back about 30,000 years by the earliest estimates. But even though we may have been smithing swords and grilling meats over charcoal for a few millennia, it’s only recently that it has crept its way into major beauty channels. These days, it’s impossible to walk into any beauty or wellness store without seeing “activated charcoal” splashed across a whole swath of products. But how did that charcoal become charcoal? And more importantly, what made it so active?
Charcoal, by definition, is a lightweight black carbon and ashy hydrocarbon produced by burning off water (and other volatiles) in the absence of oxygen. It also has to be made from plant or animal substances, which usually means hardwoods, peat, or coconut shells, but can also include things we don’t usually think of as nature-friendly, like coal and petroleum.
So now that we’ve nailed down charcoal, what exactly makes it activated? According to the New York Times, activated charcoal “has been treated with oxygen to increase the pores on its surface area, which supposedly improves filtration.”
Okay, great. But what does that do for your skin exactly?
Nicole Pond, founder and CEO of natural beauty line The Yellow Bird explains it this way: “Activated charcoal has a really high rate of adsorption, so that means that because it’s a carbon atom it has a lot of space to bind with toxins, or just about anything, and then it holds onto them so it can be washed away.”
But it’s when you’re looking at just how much the activated charcoal can pick up that you see just how impressive it really is. According to Pond, if you compare the surface area of what just five grams of activated charcoal can bind to, that area would be roughly equivalent to that of a football field. This makes it an ideal ingredient in cleansing products, like a deep-cleaning face wash, as it binds to just about anything lurking in your pores and takes that dirt with it when you wash it off.
The area where things get a little more complicated, though, is with sourcing. The beauty industry is a complex behemoth, so hunting down the exact origins of a charcoal product isn’t as simple as just reading the label. Nevertheless, the source of your charcoal should be considered just as important to understand as other ingredients in your everyday products.
As mentioned earlier, charcoal can be created from some pretty nasty sources; odds are most consumers aren’t in love with the idea of rubbing powdered petroleum deep into their pores. But herein lies the issue: there are no regulations put on what a brand can and cannot call “activated charcoal.” So how do you decide who to buy from?
Basically, it comes down to finding a brand you trust, a process that Pond says is repeated on the other side of the manufacturing process when it comes to ingredients. The Yellow Bird, for example, uses charcoal sourced from hardwoods, and their supplier routinely tests the product to make sure of it. It’s up to the brand to decide who they work with, though. “We have to do that work finding sources that we trust just like the consumer does with brands,” says Pond.
Luckily, there are a few things consumers can look for when it comes to charcoal beauty products to get the best benefits while feeling confident in where their product is coming from. Specifically, you’ll want to stay away from parabens, sulfates, and other harsh detergents that will strip down your skin’s surface. “Combine that with the fact that activated charcoal has such a high adsorption rate, your skin isn’t going to have much left,” says Pond. Specifically, Pond notes that you’ll lose a lot of the good bacteria and protective oils on the surface of your skin, which leaves your face without a strong first line of defense.
Pond’s ultimate recommendation? Look for products that combine activated charcoal with super rich oils and moisturizing ingredients (think shea butter, coconut oil, and argan oil) that will rehydrate the skin. You’ll also want to steer clear of synthetic fragrances. “You’re helping your skin really get pretty purified, but that also means that it’s going to be really susceptible to whatever else is in that product,” says Pond.