Activated Charcoal


Activated Charcoal.

— Revered for its absorbent and detoxifying properties, we explore the benefits and controversy surrounding this hyped ingredient.


Katherine Guerrero.png

Kat Guerrero
Noéma contributor


Activated charcoal is equally a buzzword as it is a potent ingredient for internal and external cleansing. You’ll recognise it by its dark appearance moonlighting in everything from ice cream, to cocktails, to toothpaste. As the health and wellness worlds’ darling, charcoal is revered for its detoxifying properties and aesthetically pleasing colour. Activated charcoal has been linked to whitening teeth, cleaning hair, promoting a healthy digestion track, clearing skin and reducing bloating.

What is it?

Activated charcoal is made by burning substances like wood, bamboo, fruit shells or debris at a high heat. The substance is then burned and ground to create an absorbent material devoid of carbons volatile compounds. For all our science-illiterate friends, charcoal is essentially pure carbon, an organic compound found in nature.

Activated charcoal is more porous than traditional charcoal and can filter more toxins than regular charcoal. It’s activated by steaming the mixture with superheated water or acid. The activation allows for the charcoal to develop space to trap chemicals or toxins.

Sourcing of activated charcoal is unclear - as with a majority of products in the beauty and skincare space, where the ingredients for popular actually come from is pretty hard to track down. Since activated charcoal is essentially created from coal and other questionable sources, there should be a bit of hesitation prior to scrubbing your face with powdered petroleum. Activated charcoal doesn’t have any regulations about what one can or can not call activated charcoal, leaving the industry free to source from wherever.

Image via  Lush UK

Image via Lush UK


The History

Activated charcoal has been a mainstay in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for centuries as a holistic way to remove impurities from the body. It has been used in a multitude of ways - from the Phoenicians using charcoal as an antiseptic for their water to charcoal being used as medicine in the Dark Ages, charcoal isn’t a new revelation.

But adding charcoal to just about any health food or drink? That evolved in full force just recently when companies like Pressed Juicery introduced charcoal lemonades and detoxifying products. Now you’ll find anything from toothpastes to shampoos with the ingredient du jour.


When charcoal is activated, each tiny grain of charcoal holds a large amount of little pores and crypts that increase its surface area. The large surface area is why charcoal easily absorbs and detoxifies. Using activated charcoal as an internal detoxifying agent can get rid of toxins that influence epidermal irritation as well as lift stains from the teeth.

Charcoal is often used to remove impurities from external influences like pollution while controlling oil secretion on a superficial level. Activated charcoal pulls bacteria, toxins, dirt and oil from the skin, which is why it’s beneficial to mild to serious skin conditions. Activated charcoal also serves as an exfoliator that can remove dead skin cells without any damage or dryness to the epidermis.

Image via  FONIK.

Image via FONIK.


The Controversy

For all the positive praise activated charcoal gets, there is backlash. Medical experts have been cautious to recommend activated charcoal as a health and wellness necessity because of its ability to bind to any vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in the body. According to Byrdie, consuming products with charcoal dilutes any nutritional benefits or medicine in the body because of its detoxifying nature.

A handful of activated charcoal products are mixed with other ingredients that can actually harm the skin, like parabens, sulphates and harsh detergents. The over saturation of harsh ingredients can strip your skin’s natural protective oils and good bacteria, leaving the epidermis worse than when you started. If charcoal isn’t the predominant ingredient, we suggest you avoid the product.

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