Whether you’re late-night browsing the hottest Amazon items or strolling down the beauty aisle in your local supermarket, you’ve probably noticed that activated charcoal products have practically taken over every section of the beauty market. Teeth-whitening toothpastes, face masks, detox drinks, deodorants — there’s no doubt that activated charcoal is the beauty trend of the year. But before we cave and buy every fabulous charcoal sheet mask we’ve seen on Instagram, we have to ask: Is adding activated charcoal to our beauty regimen really beneficial? Since so many health and beauty professionals are still debating the merits of this trendy substance, we’re calling in the experts and chatting with a dietician, a dentist, and a dermatologist to get the professional DL on activated charcoal beauty products.
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Let’s start with the basics. Activated charcoal is a fine black powder produced by heating high-carbon products (think wood, coconut shells, or olive pits) to extremely high temperatures and then oxidizing the results. “The remaining particles are almost pure carbon, and the end result is a product with a very large surface area that can absorb various chemicals to its surface,” notes Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal-bestselling cookbook author.
Traditionally, activated charcoal has been used in hospitals and emergency rooms for medical detoxification from alcohol, drugs, or various poisons. By trapping chemicals while they’re still in the gut, activated charcoal prevents harmful substances from being absorbed. The activated charcoal isn’t absorbed into the body; rather, it stays in the gastrointestinal tract, carrying the toxic poisons or drugs out of the body with it as human waste. So how exactly did this ER staple become the next big health trend? Amidor says the whole thing started thanks to (you guessed it) a Goop article: “In 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow brought recognition to charcoal cleansing after she listed Charcoal Lemonade as a top juice cleanse on Goop, a weekly lifestyle publication curated by the [actress].”
Detoxing Activated Charcoal Drinks
After the Goop article went viral, many health enthusiasts started to create their own version of the detoxing charcoal lemonade by adding activated charcoal powder (you can find charcoal powders on Amazon and at some health stores) to water, lemon juice, or other fruits and juices. While a few experts believe that ingesting charcoal at extremely low doses can be beneficial, most certified nutritionists believe that it’s probably a better idea to just avoid the trend altogether. “Some of my clients are inquiring about the benefits of drinking juices containing activated charcoal. Are any of the purported health benefits of drinking charcoal true? With all the nutrition quackery out there, this fad tops the list of ridiculous,” Amidor asserts in an exposé for Today’s Dietician. “Although activated charcoal is used in Western medicine to rid the body of toxic doses of medicine, alcohol, metals, or drugs, it doesn’t detox in the way the common consumer thinks.”
While most folks start a charcoal cleanse with the goal of helping rid the body of harmful chemicals and toxins, Amidor argues that the skin, kidneys, lymphatic system, and liver are complex systems that already naturally rid the body of toxins. “Ingesting activated charcoal can leach nutrients from consumed foods, making the food less nutritious. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Food Quality examined the effects of activated charcoal on apple juice,” Amidor notes. “The study found a considerable reduction in vitamin C, vitamin B, thiamine, and biotin when combined with activated charcoal. The more activated charcoal introduced, the more these water-soluble vitamins were reduced.” Unfortunately, no long-term studies on the effects of ingesting activated charcoal have been peer-reviewed and published, making most nutritionists hesitant about confidently recommending charcoal cleanses to their clients.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that you should definitely avoid drinking activated charcoal is you’re on any sort of medication. Many experts assert that activated charcoal can reduce the absorption of certain medications (which makes perfect sense given its more traditional medical usage), so make sure to consult your doctor before picking up a trendy charcoal beverage.
Face Masks, Deodorants, and Other Skin Products
We’ve all seen those mesmerizing black masks and trendy charcoal deodorants pop up on our Instagram feeds, but are they really effective and safe to use? “Some of the dermatology community found that [activated charcoal] can help control body odor,” says Dr. Andrew Newman, a dermatology resident with Affiliated Dermatology. “The theory behind this is that activated carbon increases the odor’s ability to escape into air, since this material literally increases the surface area of the skin upon which it is applied. It’s like taking the odor from your limited-sized underarm then airing it out in a football field,” Dr. Newman suggests. Of course, like the detoxifying drinks, the biggest problem with charcoal deodorants and any other face mask or skin product is the limited amount of research done on the products. “This concept of using activated carbon for treating odor or other skin ailments is at its infancy; accordingly, activated carbon is something that only some dermatologists would feel comfortable recommending for their patients.”
When it comes to using activated charcoal on your teeth, most dentists are skeptical at best. “Activated charcoal products are supposed to remove stains, dirt, and bacteria from the skin and teeth through a process called adsorption. This is more or less a fancy way of saying that the fineness of activated charcoal makes it a very good exfoliant,” says dentist and founder of 92 Dental Dr. Ron Baise. “Personally I think that the similarity between the words adsorption and absorption makes it sound as if activated charcoal does more than it actually does. In reality, it is just another exfoliant product.”
While some consumers do claim that activated charcoal toothpaste has made their teeth appear whiter, many dentists believe that it’s probably not a good idea for the overall health of your teeth to use the product long-term. “I would not recommend activated charcoal tooth-whitening products to my patients for several reasons,” Dr. Baise says. “Firstly, clinical trials have showed that it does not whiten teeth any better than standard toothpaste.” More importantly, it may not be kind to your enamel. “Whereas regular toothpaste has been clinically tested over decades to determine the optimum levels of abrasion needed to remove stains without scouring enamel, charcoal tooth products are newer and have not been tested in this way,” notes Dr. Baise. “Activated charcoal can be very abrasive, and it would not surprise me if it is so abrasive that it scours tooth enamel. The fluoride in toothpaste is essential to maintaining the strength of your tooth enamel. It is as vital as having vitamin D and calcium in your diet. Many of these activated charcoal products do not contain fluoride, so are inferior to toothpaste in this way,” Dr. Baise warns.
The Future of Activated Charcoal Products
Many naturopathic professionals and beauty experts still swear by activated charcoal to provide a detoxifying effect on the body, skin, and teeth — and for all we know, they could be onto the next great thing. Unfortunately, until there is more research done on the topic, there’s just not enough concrete information to know if there are any hidden consequences of doing an activated charcoal cleanse or introducing the substance into our everyday beauty regime. While we can’t say we’re going to completely rule out activated charcoal permanently, we’re definitely a little more cautious about trying these trendy products.
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(Photos via Getty)
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