I’ve done everything from various facial masks and peels to abstaining from certain foods in the pursuit of spotless skin. I’m willing to try anything once. Most recently that’s meant having my face put into a machine invented by NASA that delved four layers deep into my dermis in order to show me how to best cater to my skincare needs. It told me I have clogged pores in my T-zone and, under my eyes, major dehydration. I’ve tried incorporating a great daily moisturizer and lots of H2O to help with that latter issue. However, for cleaning my face, I’ve decided to turn to something more commonly associated with a barbecue than a beauty routine—charcoal.
Here’s the gist: Activated charcoal (which is different from the kind used for barbecuing) binds to toxins like a magnet, drawing them out and trapping them. It’s made from either peat, coal, wood or coconut shell, and is similar to normal charcoal except it is specifically made for medicinal purposes. It is heated in the presence of a gas to create “pores” so that it can help absorb more impurities, its primary benefit for the skin and body. Basically charcoal has an intense ability to absorb toxins, septic bacteria and harmful substances from the skin’s layers, bringing them to the surface to be eliminated—which has made it a popular ingredient with bath and body product makers in recent years.
“There are a lot of natural ways to pull impurities out,” says Chrissy Fichtl, founder of Apotheke, a natural line of soaps, candles and body products handmade here in Brooklyn. She started using activated charcoal in her skincare products before it became the trendy ingredient it is today. “Charcoal is just our way of doing it quickly and well. When you use charcoal on the skin or hair (externally) there isn’t anything to worry about.”
Another way to accrue the detoxifying benefits of activated charcoal is by eating it. Prior to its turn as a popular health and wellness ingredient, charcoal was used to counteract the effects of poison in emergency room patients. Experts have gone back and forth on the issue of whether or not eating activated charcoal as a dietary or detoxifying supplement is safe, but that hasn’t stopped the health-food industry from hopping on the trend. It’s now often found in drinks, particularly juice cleanses. Juice Generation, a Manhattan-based juice bar, released three juices late last year that all included charcoal to help purify your skin from the inside out. Around the same time, Juice Society, an Austin, Texas-based cold-pressed juice company released a lemonade with activated charcoal—catching the ire of the NY Post in the process. Juice Served Here, a California juice cleanse company, has also been serving a lemonade drink for over a year with charcoal in it as well, taking the trend from coast to coast.
Nicole Weigl, a naturopathic doctor based in Boerum Hill, says “activated charcoal is helpful when injected for acute food poisoning. I also recommend it for someone doing a detox. It’s best for people who are feeling sluggish. The closest comparison to activated charcoal would probably be fiber. For the skin occasionally, I will recommend it as a face mask for acne.”
Weigl recommends online dispensaries such as Integrative Therapeutics as reputable places to purchase activated charcoal to use at home, but offers the following disclaimer: “Detox isn’t just through the bowels. It’s through the whole body, through the liver and kidneys, etc. The other thing, is that using charcoal too much is bad and won’t help because then everything will stick to it including medicine and nutrients. It can blow your digestive tract and give you constipation.”
On your skin, it has different side effects. “Charcoal dries you out a bit,” says Apotheke’s Chrissy Fichtl. “We always pair our charcoal with moisturizing agents and essential oils. It’s important once you cleanse to keep your skin hydrated. When the first bar soap was developed, we noticed a growing interest, in not only the interesting color, but the ability it has as well. Since then it spread from our original charcoal bar soap to a liquid soap and now our charcoal shampoo.”
At $8 a bar, Apotheke’s soap is a pretty affordable introduction to activated charcoal. It costs as much as a bottle of charcoal lemonade from Juice Served Here and lasts a lot longer, but if you’re looking for a DIY way to work with the ingredient, check out this mask recipe from The Pistachio Project.
Activated Charcoal Face Mask
2 capsules of activated charcoal (or 1/2 tsp)
1/2 tsp. bentonite clay
1/4 tsp coconut oil – softened or melted
1 tsp water
Mix activated charcoal and bentonite clay in a small bowl. Try to avoid using any metal objects as both activated charcoal and bentonite clay will try to draw out the metals. Mix in coconut oil and water.
Once mask has been fully incorporated, apply to a clean face. Allow the mask to dry and then remove with a warm wet washcloth.
Note: Activated charcoal can be quite messy so be careful and avoid getting it on anything.