What you need to know about activated charcoal
The word “coal,” until recently, reminded me of two things — summer cookouts and being on Santa’s naughty list. And then suddenly, I started seeing it everywhere: ads of girls brushing black-as-night charcoal powder onto their teeth to whiten ‘em, Sephora started hawking charcoal masks in its emailers — and even in ice cream!
WHAT IS IT?
It may be new to you, but activated charcoal, which is essentially carbon that has been treated to increase absorbency, has been used in hospital emergency rooms for years to treat drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning. Activated charcoal works by attaching to toxins in the stomach and absorbing them before the bloodstream can. The theory behind using it in beauty products is similar: when oil, dirt and impurities in your skin, or on your teeth, come in contact with the carbon, they get stuck to it and eventually washed away when you rinse.
DOES IT REALLY WORK?
Can the same purifying element in activated charcoal that filters water and deodorises your apartments unclog your pores too? There are some peel-off charcoal masks that can actually do more harm than good. You’ve seen the viral videos and been intrigued, and yes, while the masks definitely stick to the impurities in your skin, and, therefore, pulls them out when you peel the mask off, it also clings on to the peach fuzz on your face making it that much more painful.
However, there are products like GlamGlows’s OG mask, the SUPERMUD® Clearing Treatment that boasts activated charcoal as one of its primary ingredients. The brand has a serious following for the effectiveness of this product alone — and as someone who was determined to brush it off as hype, I got suckered into it as well. It’s great for spot treatment if you suffer from sensitivity and don’t want to slather it all over your face.
When it comes to teeth however, in an interview, Minneapolis-based dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association Dr. Kim Harms, DDS, says to hold off. “There’s no evidence at all that activated charcoal does any good for your teeth,” says Dr. Harms. She worries about the potential damage the grainy substance can do to your teeth and gums. “Like any abrasive, we’re worried about the effects on the gums and enamel on the teeth. We don’t know about the safety and effectiveness of it,” she says.
ARE THERE PRECAUTIONS I SHOULD TAKE?
As the Instagram-obsessed world moves from #millennialpink to the deep dark hues of charcoal, it is worth noting some things before you ingest charcoal. While no doubt it’s funky to photograph (hello, eating charcoal ice cream while having a charcoal mask on!), Patricia Raymond, MD, a gastroenterologist based in Virginia told Women’s Health that the problem with activated charcoal products is that they absorb the drugs in your body, which can render your birth control “ineffective.”
When you ingest charcoal, its effects are limited to the gastrointestinal tract and it cannot remove toxins from the rest of your body. However, activated charcoal will trap not only poisons, but also many nutrients, particularly minerals that it comes into contact with.
So we say — go forth and experiment with all the charcoal masks you want but patch test ‘em first!