If you've been shopping for new skincare lately or paid attention to the ads on Instagram you'll see that charcoal is appearing in toothpaste, face creams and face masks all over the place.
The belief is that because of charcoal's binding abilities, it'll draw out what you're trying to target -- be that stained teeth, blocked pores or excess oil.
To discern if charcoal really is effective in our beauty products, let's first have a little science lesson to learn what it is.
"Charcoal is pure carbon made through heating organic matter -- typically wood or sawdust -- to drive off everything but the carbon (and some ash)," Doctor Ian Musgrave, Discipline of Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide told The Huffington Post Australia.
"Pure carbon can chemically bind a wide variety of materials, and charcoal has many fine pores which allows it to bind quite a bit of material. Activated charcoal used in medical applications is heated in the presence of oxygen to create a more porous charcoal which maximises its chemical binding capacity."
It's that porous charcoal that you may have heard of being used in emergency rooms for cases of alcohol poisoning.
"Activated charcoal is used to remove organic material and metals from water (and is found in water purifying cartridges). This ability to remove organics is used in medicine to absorb alcohol in alcohol poisoning cases, drugs in drug overdose and for some poisons," Musgrave said.
Medical purposes aside, can charcoal make our skin better and our teeth whiter? The properties of charcoal does lend itself to be formulated into some products, but it all comes down to the claims the product is making.
"For some [products] it is the ability of charcoal powder to act as a debriding or exfoliating agent. For others, it seems to be a complete misunderstanding of how activated charcoal works."
Take toothpaste for example. Yes it might aid in cleaning, but it's not really going to whiten yellow teeth.
"Charcoal has been used as a tooth cleaner in many traditional societies. The fine particulates will act as an abrasive -- cleaning teeth. Discolouration is another matter; most stains are part of the tooth enamel and charcoal powder will not be able to get at them," Musgrave said.
When it comes to skincare, it depends on what the mask or cream is claiming to do.
"Charcoal that has been formulated into creams will have an exfoliating effect, but the organics in the cream will saturate the carbon particles and prevent their ability to remove oils. I found a strong strand of 'gets rid of toxins' in most of the cosmetic claims, especially under conditions where they would be useless for toxins of any sort."
That's not to say that these products aren't good for skin, but that it's not just the charcoal that's doing all the work.
In some face masks it may be the other ingredients that are used in the formula that helps unblock pores, for example. In addition to charcoal, these products are made up of a host of other substances and chemicals to deliver the claims it's making.
In the case of home-mixed formulas, be vary wary of those which mix with a glue-like substance as that can cause damage to the protective barrier of the skin.
Lastly, be wary of taking charcoal tablets to 'detox', and never take new supplements without the advice of a healthcare professional.
"Charcoal tablets are used for treating diarrhoea and gas. People may take them mistakenly thinking they are removing dietary 'toxins'. Long-term consumption may be harmful through absorbing vitamins," Musgrave said.
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