Are Charcoal Skincare Products Worth the Hype?

Are Charcoal Skincare Products Worth the Hype?
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Those with acne-prone skin are likely all too familiar with charcoal, but those who aren't may just think of it as something you were supposed to get at the end of the year if you behaved poorly. And no, charcoal isn't like stone that you hold onto to manifest your future, it's a very legitimate skincare ingredient.

You've likely seen charcoal announced on cleansers, toners, and face masks. Of those products, you've probably noticed that they're black in color to reflect the natural darkness of charcoal. Unless you know what the benefits of charcoal are, this can all seem pretty intimidating.

Thankfully, though, we tapped two leading dermatologists to break down everything there is to know about charcoal, how it benefits the skin, the best way to use it, and any potential side effects. Their answers, below.

What Is Charcoal?

"Charcoal is a powder made by burning something with a lot of carbon in it," explains Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Shafer Clinic in Manhattan. "Heating substances such as wood, charred bone, olive pits, coconut shells, and sawdust become activated charcoal used in skincare when hot air or certain acids erodes the charcoal. This rearranges the charcoal to give it a huge surface area, which makes it very effective at absorbing substances." 

What Are the Benefits of Charcoal Skincare?

Since charcoal is effective at absorbing substances, it works to absorb excess oil and other nasties that get stuck in our pores throughout the day.

"Studies show that activated charcoal can play a role in absorbing pollutants that are present on the skin, which is why this carbon compound has become so popular in the skincare industry," confirms Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Skin & Aesthetic Surgery in Manhattan. "Some also suggest that when used topically on the skin, charcoal can improve acne and minimize the appearance of pores.  

For the best results, Dr. Henry primarily recommends using charcoal-infused facial cleansers or soaps (we love Payot's Pâte Grise Gelée Nettoyante Foaming Cleanser) while Dr. Engelman says face masks are very effective to purify pores and regulate oiliness (we recommend the Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask). Both agree that each works very well, but Dr. Henry warns against using peel-off masks as those may be to irritating. Regardless of the product type you choose, though, make sure it includes hydrating ingredients (such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin) to avoid over-drying the skin.

What Are the Potential Side Effects of Using Charcoal Skincare?

Since charcoal absorbs, there's the risk that it could absorb too much and cause dryness. "This can be especially true for people with sensitive and dry skin, and it becomes a concern if charcoal is overused," says Dr. Engelman. As such, she recommends only using charcoal face masks one to three times a week to avoid any irritation, flakey, or peeling skin.

Of course, you should do a test patch any time you introduce a new active ingredient to your skincare routine. "A good tip is to first, try out a charcoal-infused product on your hand and see if it prompts an allergic reaction. If not, apply a thin layer of the product to your face and observe the results," suggests Dr. Henry.

From non-toxic makeup and skincare to sustainability practices, Clean Slate is an exploration of all things in the green beauty space. Find out what's really in your products — and what's being left out.

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