Activated Charcoal: What Is It? And How Should You Use It?



What Is Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal is an ingredient that you are probably familiar with in your skincare. It is an ingredient that is widely used in toothpaste, cleansers, shampoos, and face masks. 

Activated charcoal is a product that is the result of burning carbon-based material such as wood at high temperatures with the addition of chloride salts. 

Activated charcoal is processed in this way to increase its surface area and improve its absorbency. Often charcoal and activated charcoal are used interchangeably but there is some difference in how they perform.

Generally, activated charcoal is considered to help remove excess oil and impurities from the skin. This potential benefit comes from the fact that charcoal is highly absorbent and has been studied for its ability to reduce the effects of some poisonings when ingested. However, there is limited research into how beneficial charcoal actually is for the skin.

Activated Charcoal

the good: Activated charcoal may help to absorb excess oil from the skin and may help to dirt and oil from the skin, allowing it to be easily rinsed away.

the not so good: Activated charcoal is not well studied in the context of skincare and has no proven benefits.

Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.

Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients.

Keep an eye on: Keep an eye out for more research.

What Are The Benefits of Charcoal?

In theory, activated charcoal is used to help remove dirt and oil from the skin. Due to its absorbency, it is thought to help lift dirt and oils from the skin, allowing them to be rinsed away. One benefit of this is that less astringent or harsh ingredients may be needed in cleansing products. 

There are some claims that activated charcoal helps to remove toxins from the skin. However, there is little evidence that charcoal will actually perform these benefits. 

Charcoal-based ingredients are generally marketed to acne-prone skin, in particular, oily skin types that produce acne. This is because the oil-absorbing benefits may seem appealing to these skin types. However, many of these charcoal-containing products also contain other ingredients that may help to reduce oil and congestion such as acids and clays. So, it is hard to tell how effective a charcoal product may actually be. 

Charcoal and activated charcoal are also used in toothpaste products whereby the abrasive nature of the charcoal helps to exfoliate stains off the surface of your teeth. 

What Is The Difference Between Charcoal And Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal is a little different from normal charcoal. Charcoal is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. Activated charcoal is made when you burn carbon-rich substances, often charcoal or nut shells, at much higher temperatures with the addition of chloride salts. 

This process produces a charcoal that has a greater surface area, making it highly absorbent. This is why activated charcoal is used in skincare products for cleansing, deodorants, water filters, and even for flatulence. 

Standard charcoal is generally used for teeth whitening products, cooking, and cleaning. It has a lower absorbancy and is often used instead for its abrasive properties. 

Is Activated Charcoal Vegan?

Yes, activated charcoal is usually vegan. It is usually made from plant-based sources such as wood and nutshells.

If you are looking for a vegan product always check with the brand as to the source of activated charcoal that they use and that their products are cruelty-free.  

Is Activated Charcoal Safe?

Research is limited on the benefits and safety of charcoal and activated charcoal in skincare products. However, it is unlikely to cause irritation or sensitivity unless it is used to exfoliate the skin. If you have experienced a reaction to a charcoal-containing product, it is most likely from the other ingredients in the formulation. 

Actuated charcoal is often used to help treat acute poisonings, flatulence, and diarrhea, so its safety in these contexts is well-documented. 

It is also important to note that while activated charcoal, taken orally for ‘detoxing’, is quite popular, it remains a controversial issue. 

Always check with your doctor before consuming charcoal. Do not consume skincare products that contain charcoal as they will often contain a number of other ingredients in their formulation that aren’t safe to ingest.

Derlet RW, Albertson TE. Activated charcoal–past, present and future. West J Med. 1986;145(4):493-496.
Vale JA, Proudfoot AT. How useful is activated charcoal?. BMJ. 1993;306(6870):78-79.



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