Over the past few years numerous products have been introduced into both the skin care and health care markets that feature activated charcoal as a main ingredient. But is this just a fad or is there any real science behind this trend? In order to answer this question we need to explain exactly what activated charcoal is and how it works in these types of products.

Let’s start with the obvious question…What is charcoal? Charcoal may be derived from peat, coal, wood, coconut shells, or petroleum that is burned to form a lightweight mass of carbonaceous charcoal. When we refer to “activated” charcoal it means the charcoal has been reheated, often to extremely high temperatures, which creates thousands of micropores that increase the surface area of the charcoal.

Adsorption Power

The activated charcoal, with its increased surface area, can readily adsorb substances onto its surface. This differs from absorption where one substance is incorporated into another; think about a sponge absorbing water—the sponge becomes saturated with the water through and through. In adsorption, molecules adhere just to the surface of the activated charcoal. Suppliers of activated charcoal use special manufacturing techniques that yield highly porous activated charcoals with varying surface areas; it is not uncommon to find that one teaspoon of activated charcoal can have a surface area of as much as 10,000 square feet. That’s a lot of adsorption power!

While the skin care industry has just seen the merits of activated charcoal, the medical community has known about the adsorption power of charcoal for years. Entire books have been written on the subject of the medical uses of activated charcoal to adsorb toxins or poisons in humans and animals. As a matter of fact, even the Red Colobus monkeys of Zanzibar have learned about the health benefits of using activated charcoal. In a similar fashion activated charcoal filters are used to adsorb odorous or colored substances from gases or liquids; a common household example is charcoal water filter often found in refrigerators and freezer ice makers. Bear in mind that once all of the sites on the activated charcoal are filled it’s time to replace your filter.

Activated Charcoal in Skin Care

In the skin care industry, cosmetic chemists have found that activated charcoal can readily adsorb oils, toxins and impurities from the skins surface. One of the most effective forms of activated charcoal is Binchotan charcoal derived from Ubame Oak trees from the Kishu region of Japan. Binchotan charcoal is activated by burning oak branches at extremely high temperatures for several days and then rapidly cooling them. It is known as the highest quality activated charcoal and is often used to purify drinking water. Because it is such a clean, odorless charcoal it is also used in high end Japanese restaurants that use charcoal fires in tableside dining.

In skin care formulations, activated Binchotan charcoal adsorbs oils as well as pollutants and other superficial toxins from the skin’s surface. We know that masques can deliver dramatic benefits to the skin and charcoal masques have gained popularity among consumers, especially those with oily and breakout-prone skin. Combined with other actives, such as keratolytic sulfur, mineral rich volcanic ash, and exfoliating AHAs, one can optimise the results of using a charcoal masque for a wide range of skin care conditions. Rinsing this charcoal formulation from the skin readily removes the adsorbed substances from the skin to help purify, brighten and revitalize any skin condition.