I've known about the power of charcoal for a very long time. Charcoal and I met when I was a third-year medical student, helping treat a young, female overdose patient in the emergency department. I used it countless times during my practice as an ER doc and saw it save more than a few lives. In fact, coming in for Sunday morning shifts, we could always identify the patients who had been brought in intoxicated and unconscious by the telltale black ring around their lips—they had all been treated with activated charcoal in an effort to prevent drugs from causing dangerous toxicity.
So, what is this magic black powder? And, why is it called "activated"? The process is wicked complicated, but here’s the quick and dirty.
Where does it come from?
Charcoal is made from wood (or coconut shells), by heating it at very high temperatures (800 to 1,200 degrees) with very low oxygen concentrations. This slow process removes methane, hydrogen, and tar from the wood and reduces the weight of the wood by 75 percent, leaving behind a concentrated, black substance made mostly of carbon. At this point, charcoal can be used as fuel and burns cleaner and hotter than wood. But it's the "activation" step that makes charcoal become a superhero, capable of saving lives. Activation may be done with chemicals or with steam (we, of course, use the steam-activated variety). The charcoal is steamed at very high temperatures, opening up the carbon structure and further eliminating the non-carbon elements. In the end, what remains is an incredibly porous version of carbon, with tons of open spaces with which to bind other stuff. And, recently, it has become the ultimate, green beauty detox ingredient!
This is how to use activated charcoal in your beauty routine.
Because of its unparalleled ability to bind impurities and unwanted toxins, activated charcoal is brilliant for skin care. Used in proper proportions, it can pull toxins and contaminants from the skin and rinse them down the drain. It can also bind good stuff, like vitamins and minerals, so you must use it sparingly and in combination with the right replenishing ingredients. We use activated bamboo charcoal in our popular Detox Exfoliating Mask with organic honey and raw cacao to provide nourishment along with the purification. And, we use it in our Oh So Detox Soap, where it works with organic olive oil and shea butter to cleanse and soften the skin. Oh So Detox has no essential oils, so it is well-suited to those with very sensitive skin or noses, as well as people who struggle with eczema or psoriasis. Other great brands that use it in unique ways are: Boscia Charcoal Makeup Melter Cleansing Oil-Balm ($32), Julep Konjac Face Sponge ($12), and Herbivore Botanicals Bamboo Charcoal Soap ($12).
Activated charcoal works to whiten teeth the same way—just put a dab of your toothpaste on the brush, and then dip it in a bit of activated charcoal powder.
It is harmful to the lungs if inhaled, so you must be attentive and try not to breathe in any loose powder—mash it into the toothpaste first. It can bind up many of the pigments from coffee, tea, and red wine that stain your teeth over time. Brush with charcoal twice a day for a week and see if you notice any difference. It's messy as sin and tastes like you face-planted in a fireplace, but I noticed a difference.
So, there you have it. The lowdown on activated charcoal. It's a hot skin-care ingredient at the moment, and I hope this helps you understand how and why it works. After using activated charcoal in the ER so many times and understanding the organic chemistry of how it works, I can tell you that it definitely isn't voodoo. But it sure is a little bit of Black Magic.