What Is Activated Charcoal?

What is activated charcoal? A popular ingredient in modern facial masks. Learn what activated charcoal is and why it's the latest beauty trend.

Activated Charcoal: What Is The Popular Skincare Product?

"Activated charcoal" is one of those health trends that sounds a little outlandish until you see it in action. Starting as a poison control tool in hospitals, activated charcoal has since become a healthcare and skincare buzzword with proven benefits—and a noticeable collection of side effects, too.

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal comes in the form of a fine black powder. It can be added to skincare products, shampoos and hair treatments, and even certain food and drinks. What we know as "activated charcoal" isn't the same as the little pieces you'd put in a gas grill, although it is created through similar processes.

This type of charcoal is typically made from natural substances like coconut shells, olive pits, sawdust, or bone char. The base is then burned at incredibly high temperatures, leaving behind a processed—or "activated"—final product.

That burning process changes the chemical structure of the charcoal, giving it more surface area and smaller pores. In this final "activated" state, the charcoal can trap toxins and chemicals in ways that can be beneficial to the human body—in the right uses, of course.

How is activated charcoal used?

Believe it or not, this trendy healthcare product started out as an effective method of poison control. Activated charcoal's chemical structure allows it to trap toxins and poisons in the gut, keeping your body from absorbing the harmful molecules. Once the charcoal has trapped a potential poison, it passes through the body's digestive system without exposing your body to the toxins.

Activated charcoal has been used for years as an effective treatment in poison control centers and substance abuse centers. Unfortunately, when consumed in large enough amounts to offset a potentially lethal poison, activated charcoal has been known to cause nausea and vomiting—in other words, it helps your body get rid of toxins by whatever means necessary.

Healthcare and skincare experts—and product-making companies alike—saw what charcoal could do as a poison treatment and wondered if they could take it one step further. If activated charcoal could trap poisons and toxins in the stomach, what impact could it have on your skin, digestive system, and overall health?

Since its initial use in hospitals, activated charcoal has evolved to take on a new role in skincare, nutrition, and other trendy health arenas. Today, you can find activated charcoal in tooth treatments (to remove stains and whiten the smile), face masks and lotions (to capture and remove toxins), and even foods and drinks (to neutralize toxins and additives as they make their way through the digestive system). Yes, charcoal lemonade and charcoal smoothies are real products!

Is activated charcoal safe to use?

In the right doses, yes. Charcoal can have impressive health benefits when applied, used, or taken correctly. However, it's critical to mention that activated charcoal can have unpleasant side effects as well.

In skincare products, charcoal can act as an exfoliant and antioxidant, reducing odors, removing buildup, and leaving your skin clear and refreshed. When added to shampoos and conditioners, it can remove toxins left in your hair by hair spray, gels, and chemical treatments. And in many foods and drinks—or even in pill form—charcoal can have restorative effects for your digestive system, like reducing gas or trapping preservatives before they can be absorbed into your body.

Unfortunately, for all its health benefits, activated charcoal can also pose certain health risks. There is no way to "teach" charcoal to only target toxins and poisons—in other words, charcoal can absorb beneficial vitamins and nutrients, too.

Overindulgence in "detoxifying" charcoal juices, foods, and pills has been tied to unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and constipation. This is because there is no known exact "safe" dose for activated charcoal. Think about it—it got its start as a poison control treatment, where vomiting or an upset stomach was a welcome experience to the alternative.

This doesn't mean you should run screaming from any product with charcoal in it! The bottom line here is that activated charcoal really can have incredible restorative properties for your skin, hair, and body—if you use it right.

However, you should never rely on charcoal products in lieu of medical treatment, and you should always trust your doctor's advice over anything a boxed product claims to offer. As research advances and more charcoal products hit the market, we're sure to see an uptick in scientifically-proven benefits (and mitigated side effects) and narrow down the ideal doses, uses, and products for activated charcoal.

Resources— HealthlineHealth.com, Poison Control