Activated charcoal: 4 things to know about this skincare trend

Skin Care

by Erica Stevens, MD

Apr 10, 2019

You may be seeing more and more products on the shelf touting “activated charcoal” as an ingredient, from supplements and drinks to cleansers and facemasks. Recently popular for its supposed detoxifying and purifying abilities, activated charcoal has actually been used for years in emergency rooms to treat specific types of issues including drug overdoses. Because of its strong absorptive ability, it can act like a micro sponge to bind up toxins. 

But before you put that curiously black, gritty facial scrub in your shopping cart, heed my advice: when it comes to your skincare routine, the benefits of activated charcoal aren’t quite as clear.

What even is activated charcoal? How is it “activated”?

Activated charcoal is different from regular charcoal that you might use to grill because it is superheated to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit to become “activated.” This heating creates bubbles that can leave behind open “pores” that are able to bind substances like dirt, oil and toxins.

Should I start using activated charcoal?

So, should you be using activated charcoal on your skin? If activated charcoal is so good at soaking up toxins in the body, then it must be great for soaking up unwanted things on the skin and clearing out pores, right? This may be a logical next step, but there is no solid scientific data that activated charcoal has clear benefits for the skin.

Related: How to get rid of back acne

Are there any proven health benefits of using activated charcoal for skincare?

People do claim that regular use of activated charcoal can improve your skin by shrinking pores, clearing up acne and balancing out oily skin, among other benefits. However, these are mostly just anecdotes and not yet rooted in research.

Unlike drugs, activated charcoal is a supplement. The makers of supplements are not required to prove that their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.

Evidence-based medicine relies on well-designed studies to show that a treatment is truly responsible for an improved result and to look for unwanted side effects. Unlike drugs, activated charcoal is a supplement. The makers of supplements are not required to prove that their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market. As such, there is no clear evidence of the benefits of activated charcoal on your skin beyond the anecdotes you may hear. It is possible that positive results are due to the presence of activated charcoal, but it’s also possible that any benefit seen from a product containing activated charcoal is actually from the other ingredients in the skin cleanser, cream or mask.

Whether you jump on the activated charcoal trend or not is ultimately up to you, but at this point, further studies need to be done to learn whether it actually benefits your skin.

So, what should I be doing for my skin? 

Regardless of your feelings about activated charcoal, your skincare routine should include a few critical steps to protect and preserve your skin.

Focus on these proven ways to take proper care of your skin:

  • Use daily sunscreen with at least SPF 30
  • Avoid smoking. The two things that can prematurely age your skin the fastest are sun damage and smoking cigarettes
  • Use a gentle foaming cleanser and moisturizer twice a day
  • Seek out the opinion of a board-certified dermatologist physician if you want to discuss how to keep your skin healthy and to do a skin-cancer screening

Say hello to healthier skin.

About the Author

Dr. Stevens is a dermatologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic—Buda Medical Center.

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