Is Activated Charcoal Really the Secret to Perfect Skin (and Teeth)?

Until recently, the word “coal” probably made you think of summer cookouts, the mining scene in Zoolander, or Santa’s naughty list. Enter activated charcoal, the beauty ingredient of the moment. It’s been added to cleansers, face masks, toothbrushes, and even juices for its ability to absorb toxins and pollutants. But is it effective? Here, we explore ten activated-charcoal products that really work—and one that, well, doesn’t.

Activated charcoal, which is carbon that’s been treated to increase its absorbency, isn’t new. It’s been used in hospital emergency rooms for years to treat alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses. It works by attaching to toxins in the stomach and absorbing them before the bloodstream can. The theory behind including activated charcoal in beauty products is similar: It’ll act like a magnet to attract and absorb dirt and oil. And the experts say that theory holds water. “When dirt and oil in your pores come in contact with the carbon, they stick to it and then get washed away when you rinse,” explains cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson.

Blended with two types of charcoal—an activated bamboo variety and a white Japanese Binchotan powder—this oil-balm cleanser literally melts into skin to whisk away even the most stubborn smears and smudges. (Waterproof mascara, we’re looking at you.) $32 |

This black goo is taking over your Instagram feed—one strangely captivating blackhead reveal shot at a time. To use, simply squeeze out a dollop, spread along your T-zone, and wait until it dries. Once it hardens, slowly peel away the mask to reveal a dozen or so of your blackheads satisfyingly uprooted. $19 for five treatments |

You can’t actually shrink your pores (sorry, it’s true!), but this lightweight matte primer, which is made with Moroccan clay and purifying charcoal, is an effective base for foundation, rendering dusky divots nearly invisible. $38 |

A black soap takes some getting used to—aren’t you trying to wash dirt away, not introduce it?—but a few sudsings with this pleasant blend of activated charcoal and grapefruit will make you (and your newly soft, totally clean hands) believers. $38 |

Carbon needs to come in physical contact with impurities in order to soak them up, so the longer a product sits on your skin, the more effective it’s going to be. That’s why Wilson recommends getting your activated charcoal in a mask, like this one. “The longer it’s left on, the better,” she says. It’s especially useful if you live in a city, where your skin is constantly bombarded with pollutants. This formula also contains kaolin and bentonite clays for extra oil absorption. $26 |

Yes, there’s something a little strange about using a jet-black soap. But we strongly suggest you get over it because this bar is so worth it. It fights breakouts (of both the face and body variety) with white willow bark (a natural source of salicylic acid) while sopping up excess oil with—you guessed it—activated charcoal. $4.99 |

This mask doesn’t exactly feel luxurious (they don’t call it mud for nothing), but it’s totally worth it for what it does for your complexion: deep-cleans pores, gently exfoliates with a blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and soothes with eucalyptus leaf. It can be a bit drying, so resist the urge to use it more than a couple of times a week. $69 |

This sponge is made from the fibrous root of the konjac plant (for light exfoliation) and infused with activated-charcoal powder (for extra cleansing oomph). Soften it with water before gently rubbing it over your clean, damp face in a circular motion, then rinse. “It can be a good thing to try if you’ve been washing your face regularly and your skin is still acting up,” says Wilson. $12 |

We’re not going to tell you to toss your regular toothpaste. But you might want to add activated charcoal to your normal brushing routine. “It may work to remove surface stains and whiten teeth,” says Marc Lowenberg, a dentist in New York City. If you want to try it, he recommends mixing a charcoal powder (like this one) with water or hydrogen peroxide (which also whitens teeth) until you get a toothpaste-like consistency. “You don’t want to actually brush your teeth with it, though,” he says. “Just apply the paste with a toothbrush so it sits on your teeth, wait a few minutes, then rinse it off.” According to Lowenberg, there are no risks associated with using activated charcoal this way. Don’t expect dramatic results, but if you experience tooth sensitivity when you use products with bleach, charcoal is an alternative to consider. $9 |

Not loving the idea of a mouth full of sludgy black paste? Totally understandable. Here’s an easier way to work activated charcoal into your brushing routine: The bristles of this toothbrush are infused with the stuff. It probably won’t whiten teeth much (since the charcoal isn’t sitting on them long enough to absorb and remove stains), but it can help fight bad breath and prevent bacteria from growing on the brush. All that aside: These are some of the chicest toothbrushes we’ve ever seen. $8 each |

Yes, these taste pretty good (especially Activated Protein, which is pretty much like a health-ified vanilla milkshake.) However, drinking activated charcoal won’t do much for your health. The claim is that the activated charcoal helps absorb toxins inside the body. Lisa Young, a nutritionist and the author of The Portion Teller Plan, says that’s not really something we need. Brooke Alpert, a nutrition expert in New York City, adds that because we’re “constantly bombarding our bodies with more and more pollution and pesticides and the like,” she’s “a fan of a little extra help in that department.” Still, there may be some risks associated with ingesting activated charcoal: “Since it’s so absorbent, it could cause dehydration or constipation. And you definitely wouldn’t want to drink it if you’re on medication or if you’re diabetic,” says Young.

Allure | 2016
Ramona Emerson & Stephanie Saltzman