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The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Activated Charcoal

Beauty Feature

Written by Samantha Lund

Popularity for activated charcoal toothpastes, soaps and detoxing solutions is at an all-time high. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen magazines and beauty bloggers rave about the benefits of charcoal and its imperfection-gobbling effects on your skin, teeth and body.

Something so popular and well known as a beauty must-have needs to live up to the hype, right? Reality check: How much do you actually know about activated charcoal?

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is different from regular charcoal. Activated charcoal, or activated carbon, has been heated to high temperature, which changes its internal structure to increase microporosity and its surface area.

Those millions of pores trap chemicals and toxins. The charcoal doesn’t actually absorb the toxins, but it works through the process of adsorption, or the chemical reaction wherein elements bind to a surface. In this case, the charcoal’s porous surface binds any foreign elements.

Charcoal drinks and pills

Activated charcoal/carbon has been used to treat certain drug overdoses and poisonings because it can prevent absorption of potentially toxic agents in the gastrointestinal tract. As early as 1500 B.C.  the ancient Egyptians used it to absorb odors and cure intestinal ailments.

Today, activated charcoal is used less in emergency rooms; under 5 percent of patients are treated with it annually. Studies by Princeton University and the University of Florida point toward the reason. They found that charcoal cannot differentiate between good and bad foreign substances, so when ingested, it could also remove helpful and healing agents in the body.

Charcoal and your teeth

One of the most recent beauty fads is charcoal toothpaste, which claims amazing teeth-whitening potential. Certain companies argue that charcoal binds to the stains on teeth caused by coffee, wine and plaque and strips them out.

While some people swear by the make-your-mouth-black toothpaste, the American Dental Association (ADA) discourages its use. The ADA argues that there’s no evidence at all that activated charcoal does any good for your teeth. In fact, like any abrasive, the potentially erosive effects on the gums and enamel of your teeth aren’t worth the risk.

Another concern when putting charcoal into your mouth is the potential for it to enter your lungs, which can cause a potentially fatal lung injury.

Charcoal and your skin

There is good news: The oh-so-popular charcoal face masks and soaps are effective and relatively harmless. For external treatments, activated charcoal is effective at treating body odor, acne and discomfort associated with insect bites, poison ivy or snake bites.

The impurity-adsorbing effects lock in toxins, dirt and grime on your body and draw them out. It’s effective as an acne treatment, exfoliant or even a daily body soap. Dermatologists recommend treating small acne outbreaks by smoothing one part activated charcoal and two parts aloe vera gel over the area, letting it dry and then rinsing it. The charcoal will bind with the toxins in your skin that contribute to acne.

What to look for

When using active charcoal in any beauty regime, it’s important to know the ingredients. Not all charcoal is created equal. Look for activated charcoal made from coconut shells or identified wood species that have ultra-fine grains.

In powdered form, many products add artificial sweeteners and chemicals to soaps, masks, toothpaste, pills, juice; avoid these. After all, activated charcoal is used to rid your body of chemicals and toxins. If it’s loaded with them, what’s the point?

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