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The Science Behind Activated Charcoal

Until recently, when you heard the word charcoal, you envisioned a dirty, sooty lump given to naughty kids at Christmas or the remnants of a great summer BBQ… right? But what about charcoal for skincare? How can something so dirty make your skin cleaner?! 

But fast forward a few years, embellish it with the prefix ‘activated’, and it can be seen in multiple beauty adverts, in face masks, in cleansers and even in toothpaste, branding itself as the answer to all your beauty woes and a natural way to whiten, brighten, cleanse and clean. 

Activated Charcoal claims to absorb toxins, rid your skin of pollutants and even whiten your teeth… but does it really work? And if so, HOW?!

We’ve looked into the science behind activated charcoal, what makes it so impressive, and whether or not it’s worth adding into your beauty routine.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

‘Activated Charcoal’ is charcoal that’s been heated to around 1,800°F to increase its natural absorption surface area (or how good it is at absorbing impurities). When under a microscope, activated charcoal has hundreds of thousands of tiny holes, meaning that just 1 gram of activated charcoal has a similar surface area of 7 basketball courts! This makes it the perfect ingredient for absorbing a large number of external molecules. 

It’s been used medically for years, mainly treating alcohol poisoning by soaking up excess toxins in the body, or for purifying water by attaching to any impurities and flushing them out, but recently these absorption properties have been put to other uses… skin purifying uses!

The theory behind using activated charcoal in beauty products is simple; it acts like a magnet to attract dirt, oil and other pollutants, washing them away when the charcoal is rinsed away. 

How Does It Work In Skincare?

Because of its dispersion force, substances or toxins need to be physically touching the activated charcoal in order for them to stick. This means that topically-applied charcoal will work by grabbing dirt and oil from your pores – but not necessarily from anywhere your face mask can’t reach!  

Because most molecules that are on your face are rarely wanted (think dust, bacteria, dirt, oil…), activated charcoal is safe to use regularly in your skincare routine. Think of activated charcoal like an extreme cleanser – removing any unwanted additions from your skin. The usual surfactants and humectants in our everyday cleansers don’t actually go into your pores, activated charcoal can also draw out oil from deep within your skin similar to how a clay mask does – so it can therefore potentially clean deeper inside the pore than a standard cleanser.

Our Thoughts

Although there are no exact scientific studies to prove that activated charcoal in skincare really works, the science behind it means that it should! Being a relatively inexpensive and 100% natural addition, we see no harm in trying it if you’re looking for a deeper cleanse in your daily routine. Let us know what you think! 



Rachel Cleverley

Part writer, part skin-care enthusiast, I can usually be found blogging away with the latest facemask or eye cream on! With specific interest in how our health and fitness can affect our beauty routine, and how science can boost regular, drugstore products.


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