Activated charcoal skincare products are pretty cool. They’re black, they’re sciencey-sounding and they’re said to suck dirt out of your pores like a magnet – what’s not to like? The reality is a little more complex than that…
(If you’re after the video version of this post, keep scrolling! To make sure you don’t miss a video from me when it goes live, click here.)
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is carbon soot that’s been treated to give it a sponge-like structure, with lots of holes. If you zoom into activated charcoal, it’s very jaggedy, giving it a huge surface area. It’s estimated that 1 gram of activated charcoal has a surface area of 3000 square metres, which is the same as 3 Olympic swimming pools, 7 basketball courts or 230 car parking spaces.
This gigantic surface area is particularly handy for soaking up substances. You can see how effective it can be for purifying water in the picture underneath, where activated charcoal’s grabbed onto all the red dye in the glass on the left (it can also be seen with the orange fizzy drink in the video).
In medicine, activated charcoal is mostly used in poisoning cases, where a large dose is fed to the patient alongside other treatments. A lot of the poison sticks to the charcoal instead of absorbing into the body.
Since it’s a default treatment for soaking up ACTUAL TOXINS in poisoning, lots of people eat/drink activated charcoal for “detox” purposes, which sounds like it could work (although if you read my other blog, you’ll know that detox is a scam). You might be wondering, how does activated charcoal tell the difference between good things and bad things? The answer is… it doesn’t.
How does activated charcoal work?
At a molecular level, things are sticky. It’s why the wax in a candle stays together as one big clump instead of splaying everywhere, and why you have to put in a whole heap of heat to get water molecules to separate and turn into steam. This stickiness is known as intermolecular forces – interactions that stick molecules together. Without them, everything would be a gas.
There are a few types of intermolecular force – the one that activated charcoal uses is called dispersion forces. Absolutely every substance has dispersion forces, whether it’s a vitamin or a poison.
Remember the large surface area that activated charcoal has? This means there’s a lot of space for things to stick to. And since everything can form dispersion forces, activated charcoal actually soaks up all sorts of things, including nutrients like vitamins, meaning you don’t get the full health benefits of your food.
Activated charcoal can stick to medications as well, if they’re still in your digestive system. This means that you might not be getting the right dose.
In a poisoning situation, you’re probably not worried about whether you get enough vitamins, but in everyday life it’s not such a good idea to prevent your body from taking up random nutrients and medications on a regular basis. So don’t make activated charcoal part of your regular diet!