Long before Santa Claus deemed it a punishment for those on his Naughty List, or it became the focal point of summer barbecues, charcoal had a very different connotation. Used in ancient Ayurvedic, Egyptian and Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, a form of the ingredient called activated charcoal has found its place in contemporary beauty and wellness regimens, thanks to its—wait for it—purifying qualities.
Today, charcoal is one of the hottest ingredients in natural beauty, harnessing the power of ancient wisdom and catering to demand for simple wellness remedies that can neutralize the abundance of toxic chemicals we encounter daily.
“Activated charcoal is made by burning a source of carbon, such as wood or coconut shells,” says Felicia Imrie, aesthetician and manager of Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Carlsbad, California. “The very high temperature removes all the oxygen and activates it with steam. You’re left with a material with millions of tiny pores that capture, bind and remove heavy metals, chemicals and poisons.” The process, known as adsorption (which, yes, is different from absorption), is why the ingredient is thought to attract impurities.
For your brief history lesson: Activated charcoal started primarily as a remedy for flushing toxins from the body when taken orally. Although it had been used for thousands of years, in the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists started researching its ability to counter toxic exposure. It’s still used medically when someone overdoses on a medication or consumes poison, but now it’s also found commercially in everything from juices, smoothies and supplements to facial masks, toothpastes, teeth-whitening products, deodorants and more.
“Activated charcoal is processed so finely and becomes so porous that it acts like a magnet to collect and trap toxins and chemicals,” says Imrie. Though the range of products it’s used in is vast, the thinking around how it works is similar across the board. In oral hygiene products or deodorants, for example, it is thought to remove toxins from the mouth to remedy bad breath or body odor, whereas in skin care, it binds to impurities to alleviate or prevent blemishes and irritation caused by dirt and other skin villains. For teeth, it is thought to lift stains left by coffee, wine and more, making it an emerging natural whitening agent. As for its use in supplements and juices, add beauty to the overall energizing and cleansing benefits: Fewer toxins internally can lead to a clearer complexion.
So, are there any downsides to this cleansing superstar? The notion of “detox” remains polarizing, with some media calling out activated charcoal specifically for lacking sound research and even being misleading. But for Imrie, the main downside is that you can have too much of a good thing. “Activated charcoal is indeed beneficial, but we need to be careful not to overindulge,” she says. Translation: Be judicious when it comes to delicate tooth enamel, finicky skin or a sensitive tummy.