Back in Black: My Adventures in Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal. It’s another huge fad thing, apparently.


People are brushing their teeth with it, adding it in with their crazy juice cleanses, rubbing it all over their faces. It’s far from new, however. Charcoal, on its own, has been utilized for filtering water and ‘curing’ all manner of maladies for thousands of years. Activated charcoal was developed at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a form of carbon processed to increase the surface area, and thus increase its adsorption abilities (think absorption, but just across the surface area). It was used in gas masks for filtering toxic chemicals way back in World War I, and has also been used to treat poisonings and other digestive issues from the moment it hit the scene (you could buy multiple versions of activated charcoal tabs way back in the 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog).

There seems to be no actual dermatological evidence out there supporting its topical benefits, but that’s done nothing to halt its popularity. At the very least, it’s not harming you unless you inhale it, or you’re ingesting it too often, so by all means, do your thang. As far as I can tell, it’s hypoallergenic and obviously it’s vegan. It’s usually super-cooked woody plant matter that’s been oxygenated for your convenience. Think charcoal briquettes, but more aerated.

I’ve been in the midst of a face routine overhaul. Currently, I’m trying to cut back on salicylic acid use. It suddenly dawned on me that I’m far from teenagedom these days. The rest of my routine reflects that, but I hadn’t truly updated my facial care in eons. I definitely don’t need harsh acne pulverizers anymore. Aside from some breakout patches now and then, I have sensitive, mildly combination skin. I need gentler oil control, and way more moisture. It’s not about aging or wrinkles or any of that jazz. I’m just trying to be a bit more forward thinking and a bit kinder to my face.

Sponge, face wash, and bonus face mask (we'll address him in a minute)

Sponge, face wash, and bonus face mask (we’ll address him in a minute)

I introduced two main products into my routine over the last week or so: a charcoal infused konjac sponge (it’s two fads in one!) and Biore’s Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser. I use the latter in the mornings every other day or so and the former in the evenings at the same interval. How’d it go? Let’s dig in!

First, the sponge:

Konjac sponges are plant-based, not a dead sea creature like you’re used to smooshing all over your body. They come out of the package as hard, rough, porous little hemispheres. Opening up the box for the first I felt a little apprehensive. How could this not be super abrasive? Like a condemned man to the gallows, I prepared to steel wool the crap out of my poor face – because I care about you guys JUST THAT MUCH. I cupped it in my hand and let water run over and soak into it, and a miracle happened. It softened up and expanded to about the size of a halved tennis ball. Surprise! It’s not a torture device; it’s just a dense sponge! I… don’t know why I didn’t expect this.



After staring at it and poking it for a minute or two, I applied a mixture of jojoba and Vitamin E oil to the surface. Then, onto the scrubbing. I decided to use this as my make-up removal step. That’s the moment I fell in love. The sponge provides such gentle exfoliation. Combined with my oil cleansing, my face is left so soft and glowy. I’ve been following this step up with a little toning wash and then some night cream (or my daytime moisturizer, if my skin isn’t very parched). The whole set up is fabulous.

Group picture of all my night-time buddies

Group picture of all my night-time buddies

I don’t know if the charcoal is a major factor, though. The sponge itself might be the big winner. It’s very hard to tell. One thing I do know is, I love this exfoliation method so much more than anything involving tiny mystery beads. It’s far better for the water supply, there are no unnecessary cleansers or chemicals in the mix, and each of these sponges is supposed to last me a month or so. I’m sold on this one.

Second, the cleanser:

This one’s a mixed bag. The ingredient list is chock full of frightening buzzwords. SLS is third in the list. There’s sorbitol, methylparabens, and other miscellaneous parabens, oh my! I’m not so crazy about putting all that on my face on a daily basis. It smells amazing, however, like a mild berry Noxema, if that makes any sense. It does feel less harsh than my standard Neutrogena wash, but somehow also a bit more drying, like it sucked everything up but at least didn’t offer me a bonus acid peel. I could see using this a couple times a week to strip away residual gunk from all the random make-up products I slather on my face, but this is just a bit too rough for a daily morning wash, as least for me.

the goop (much greyer out of the bottle)

the goop (much greyer out of the bottle)

It’s probably not going to be a re-buy. If your skin is oilier and less sensitive, maybe this could be your winner. Charcoal doesn’t come close to top billing in the formula, though, despite being the sole item setting this product apart from competitors. If that’s what’s attracting you, you might want to head elsewhere. If you’re looking for a salicylic-acid-free drugstore cleanser with a twist, maybe give it a go, but hunt around for a sample size first. I had a $7 bonus bucks coupon from CVS, so I was willing to take my chances (with that, I paid about a buck for my full size bottle).

Once you pop, you don't fall down?

Once you pop, you don’t fall down?

In addition to those two little beauty care marvels, I also tried the Naris Up Pore Clear Pack Eggshell and Charcoal Face Mask, which I believe is a Japanese product? I picked it up at my local Marukai Market. I couldn’t resist. The little guy on the front looks like the love child of the Pringles Man and a Weeble. So adorable. Somewhere along the line, I lost the outer packaging and with it, the only English instructions. I decided to just wing it.

Rockin' it

Rockin’ it

As you can see, I mainly focused on my chin area before taking a few liberties in the name of style. While waiting for the mask to dry, I checked up on the details as listed on Amazon, which confirmed I’d applied the mask more or less as directed. Go me! The mask starts out as a rich black goo. It smells like finger paint and it’s a bit sticky. I definitely recommend wetting the area you’re applying it to before slathering it on, otherwise it’s difficult to apply smoothly and evenly without it drying too quickly and sticking to your fingers. After peeling off the spot-treatment mask ten minutes later, my chin was a bit red, but nothing out of the normal range. I’m a pasty white girl – that’s my skin’s automatic reaction to literally everything. After a rinse, my chin felt smooth. It’s still looking good today. Despite the paint smell, the mask didn’t irritate my skin or dry me out, and removal wasn’t even painful (we’re talking Elmer’s glue on your hand rather than Biore strip cemented to your nose). I’ll probably revisit this one now and again as a pore strip alternative, despite my misgivings on its smell.

After all that, I think the take away is that, as with anything, the activated charcoal products out there are all over the map, in terms of quality, ingredients, and general ability to live up to their claims. I didn’t get a sense that any of the products’ effectiveness hinged on the presence of charcoal. I’m honestly not sure if that element did anything other than make it look cool. Activated charcoal is still a definite winner if you, say, failed to heed my advice and ate some jojoba pods, but as far as topical use goes, I remain skeptical.