Activated Charcoal: Effective or Hype?

We think it’s a bit counter-intuitive to include in a one-use rinse-off product an ingredient whose efficacy is time-dependent. Activated Charcoal is one of those ingredients. We think its use in cleansers is just a tad bit silly. Here’s why.

Activated by structure, not by reactivity
Activated Charcoal is not made “active” by its chemical nature or by its reactive ability, as we tend to attribute to chemical “actives.” Instead of working via chemical interaction or reaction, Activated Charcoal works on the principle of surface area. Its utility is due to its surface topology, and of the ability of surrounding gases and liquids to adsorb onto that surface. This ability is largely dependent on the size and shape of surface pores. 

Activated Charcoal is misplaced in cleansers
The main thing: time is required to fully saturate these pores. Products using Activated Charcoal need to stay against the surface of the skin for a while to give the charcoal its best chance at soaking up surface oils. Face masks with Activated Charcoal are a better option, but that more solid formula type is restrictive to the mobility needed for optimal performance: that charcoal would be only effective with surface oils it happens to land on, and in the right orientation. 

Activated charcoal may be effective in other product types, but certainly not in face wash, at least not to a noticeable extent. The oil-absorbing ability for which Activated Charcoal is lauded will likely take effect in the formula, but not on your face: the charcoal's surface attracts the oils present in the formula. Unless used at an extremely high-level, the Activated Charcoal pores will likely be fully occupied with formula oils during production. It's more likely that Activated Charcoal plays a role in delivering cleansing oils to your skin than that it plays a primary role in surface oil adsorption.

And even if the "activated" pores aren't fully saturated with formula oils, the charcoal may act more as a physical exfoliant than a surface-oil absorber. The nooks and crannies and hard edges that surround all the oil-grabbing sites can act like sandpaper against your skin, when the face wash is used like a scrub. The action of Activated Charcoal as an oil-absorber vs. a physical exfoliant depends on the average size of charcoal particles. This varies greatly across brands and products, and is hard to predict from the packaging alone. You'd have to buy and test the product to determine the use of charcoal within the formula.

Activated Charcoal is better used in toothpaste
A fine material for picking up stuff, but will at best, be maybe 10% efficient in the context of a rinse-off cleanser. In using an ingredient, we want to use it at its full worth. Charcoal alone would not be sufficient as a cleanser; it would have to be paired with detergents (surfactants) or other exfoliants. If it works, it works in a rather simple way, and not for the mechanism for which it’s lauded: it would work as a physical scraper, not as an oil-picker-upper. If it is an oil-picker-upper, taking in oils from the formula. In the realm of personal care specialty goods, perhaps the least gimmicky is toothpaste, a formula dependent on physical abrasives for it’s cleansing ability.

Activated Charcoal may be effective, but not in the way you think. In our opinion, cleansers that use Activated Charcoal take advantage of trends (and your wallet!), and not the innate and physical properties it could otherwise deliver to a personal care product.

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