Charcoal. You’ve seen it in toothpastes, soaps and shampoos as this trendy yet mysterious black paste that people seem to swear by as a self-care staple.
But the question remains: Do charcoal-based products really work?
We put this question to our Co-Founder and Chief Dermatologist, Dr. Robin Schaffran, to take a closer look. Is this trend worth your money (or time)?
First off, how does charcoal work?
Let’s begin by addressing how charcoal is made. When you burn plant material — like wood or bamboo — in a low-oxygen environment, all of the impurities are burned off, leaving only the carbon. The carbon is then “activated” by heating in the presence of gas until it develops bubbles (or pores). The pores help the activated charcoal trap impurities from water, toxic chemicals or drugs from the stomach, such as in the case of an overdose. It also captures moisture and fluids from chronic wounds.
“With regards to skincare, charcoal is highly absorbent, “ explains Dr. Schaffran. “So it is supposed to work by acting as a micro-sponge. The idea is that when you put it on your skin, the charcoal, like an absorbent sponge, will trap oil and sebum on the surface of your skin.” When you wash the charcoal away, it will take all of that debris along with it.
What are the perceived benefits of charcoal-based skincare products?
The most important benefit is charcoal’s ability to absorb excess oil and debris.
“The problem is that charcoal is usually applied to the skin in the form of a scrub or a mask, which means that the charcoal has likely filled all of its pores with the other ingredients contained in the product,” says Dr. Schaffran. “This makes it less likely to be effective at absorbing the oil from the skin by the time it’s applied to the face. Therefore it’s not clear how effective the charcoal really is at absorbing oil.”
Oftentimes, many of these charcoal products also contain other ingredients that may help to reduce oil and congestion, such as acids and clays, making it hard to determine how effective a charcoal skincare product may actually be.
So, it’s not totally clear how effective charcoal is. What’s the verdict?
“There is little-to-no evidence to substantiate the claims that some skincare companies are making about the use of activated charcoal in skincare products,” Dr. Schaffran asserts. “Because there are so few studies regarding the use of charcoal on the skin, these products should be used in moderation and with caution.”
That said, it’s unlikely these products will harm you; you simply may not see the desired results you were expecting. Dr. Schaffran recommends avoiding the use of charcoal if you have sensitive or dry skin, or a condition like eczema or rosacea.
What’s a good alternative?
For those looking for a way to manage excess oil production (because that’s ultimately what charcoal is purported to target), a better bet is to find products with ingredients that are clinically proven to reduce oil production. Dr. Schaffran explains that one such ingredient is Bixa Orellana seed extract, a plant-derived active that has seen growing popularity in recent years.
“Bixa is present in all three of our products in the ClearBalm System, a 3-Step System I formulated to address adult acne-prone skin,” Dr. Schaffran adds. ClearBalm targets breakouts without using drying ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, tackling the frustrations of so many people who are dealing with adult acne but cannot find a topical solution that doesn’t dry out the skin.