Charcoal has been a beauty trend for a few years now and although it’s lost a bit of momentum, it’s definitely still going in 2017. It’s been added to everything: toothpaste, exfoliators, cleansers, peel-off masks and much, much more – we’d be inclined to say that it became a bandwagon trend, with major brands tagging “charcoal” onto product titles as a marketing ploy. Is there any truth to charcoal’s purifying abilities and is it possible for these qualities to be harnessed in a skincare product?

When we’re speaking about charcoal, we don’t mean the bits left at the bottom of the barbecue (is anyone else craving grilled corn?!). Charcoal in skincare is activated or active charcoal, meaning that the carbon is heated to a high temperature and combined with gas which makes it porous and gives it a larger surface area.

This is beneficial as it makes the carbon absorbent. This is why activated charcoal is used in skincare – when placed on the face, it absorbs up the oil and debris from your pores and when you wash it off, you wash off the oil and debris with it. Well, supposedly… however, activated charcoal often features in negligible amounts in skincare products. Although activated charcoal’s action is often described like a magnet, it’s more like the force of keeping a Malteser up with a straw!!

Not all charcoal products are created equal – this is why it’s important to read the label of the things you are going to buy! If activated charcoal is the very last thing on the list of ingredients, then it’s probable that you won’t notice its effects.

What are the rumoured benefits of activated charcoal in skincare products?

As activated charcoal hasn’t been around for so long, its effects aren’t proven. So all of its supposed advantageous qualities have to be taken with a pinch of salt…

  • It makes your pores less visible, as it removes the dirt so efficiently.

Anyone with large pores that relentlessly cleanses daily and nightly knows this not to be necessarily true.

  • It helps to heal adult acne. 

I am glad for anyone that finds that activated charcoal works for their acne (whether adult or otherwise), but it’s difficult to recommend something for a specific skincare problem without reasoning behind it. It’s always best to stick with scientifically-proven, meticulously-tested solutions (ie. BHAs and AHAs).

  • It detoxes your skin. 

If detox means to get rid of toxins, then you do not need to detox your skin!! Your skin does not harbour toxins and even if it did, your body has its own natural detox functions (ie. excreting oils through the pores).

Is activated charcoal bad for your skin?

Not in so many words, no. Using activated charcoal powder as a manual exfoliant isn’t to be recommended but I am notoriously anti-grit when it comes to exfoliators. But do I think the inclusion of charcoal in a regular cleanser, moisturiser or mask is harmful for the skin? No, as charcoal is chemically inactive so it shouldn’t irritate your skin. If you want to try adding more charcoal to your skincare, choose products that include other skin improving ingredients.

In my opinion, the popularity of activated charcoal comes from the fact that it is black and cleanses the skin, which is something that people hadn’t really become mainstream before in the skincare world. I’m being honest when I say that anything that becomes rapidly popular without justification that it works is probably gimmicky in some way and charcoal-based products fit the bill with their magical magnetic abilities and Disney villain colour scheme.