Activated Charcoal: Truth or Voodoo?

by Sarah Villafranco, MD /

Activated Charcoal: Truth or Voodoo?


I've known about the power of charcoal for a very long time. Charcoal and I met when I was a third-year medical student, helping treat a young, female overdose patient in the emergency department. I used it countless times during my practice as an ER doc, and saw it save more than a few lives. In fact, coming in for Sunday morning shifts, we could always identify the patients who had been brought in intoxicated and unconscious by the telltale black ring around their lips - they had all been treated with activated charcoal in an effort to prevent drugs from causing dangerous toxicity.

So, what is this magic black powder? And, why is it called "activated"? The process is wicked complicated, but I'll try to give you the quick and dirty. (Can't not make charcoal jokes - sorry.)

Charcoal is made from wood (or coconut shells), by heating it at VERY high temperatures (800-1200 degrees) with very low oxygen concentrations. This slow process removes methane, hydrogen, and tar from the wood, and reduces the weight of the wood by 75%, leaving behind a concentrated, black substance made mostly of carbon. At this point, charcoal can be used as fuel, and burns cleaner and hotter than wood. But it's the "activation" step that makes charcoal become a superhero, capable of saving lives.

Activation may be done with chemicals or with steam - we, of course, use the steam-activated variety. The charcoal is steamed at very high temperatures, opening up the carbon structure and further eliminating the non-carbon elements. In the end, what remains is an incredibly porous version of carbon, with tons of open spaces with which to bind other stuff.  Here's a visual:


And here is the part that should melt your brain. One tablespoon of activated charcoal powder has the same surface areas as two football fields. Read it again. Tell the person next to you. Because it's that amazing.




This is precisely why we use it in the emergency room. In the case of an overdose or accidental ingestion, if the toxin is still in the stomach or upper intestine, that means it has not yet been absorbed by the body. Activated charcoal is administered by a tube going from the mouth or nose into the stomach, where it binds up the toxin, grabbing onto it like a bargain shopper on Black Friday.  Activated charcoal is not absorbed by the body, so it just passes through, carrying the toxin with it.  (It doesn't work for every toxin, and should only be administered by medical personnel, just to be clear.)

This incredible binding capability is why activated charcoal is good at so many other things.  It's used for water filtration, decaffeination, air filtration, environmental contamination cleanup, and the purification of vodka and whiskey.  

And, recently, it has become the ultimate, green beauty detox ingredient!

Detox Mask with Charcoal, Cacao, Clay, and Honey


Because of it's unparalleled ability to bind impurities and unwanted toxins, activated charcoal is brilliant for skincare. Used in proper proportions, it can pull toxins and contaminants from the skin, and rinse them down the drain. It can also bind good stuff, like vitamins and minerals, so you must use it sparingly, and in combination with the right replenishing ingredients. We use activated bamboo charcoal in our popular Detox Exfoliating Mask (pictured above) with organic manuka honey and raw cacao to provide nourishment along with the purification. And, we use it in our newly released Oh So Detox soap (pictured at the top of this post), where it works with organic olive oil and shea butter to cleanse and soften the skin. Oh So Detox has no essential oils, so it is well-suited for those with very sensitive skin or noses, as well as people who struggle with eczema or psoriasis.

Activated charcoal works to whiten teeth the same way - just put a dab of your toothpaste on the brush, and then dip it in a bit of activated charcoal powder. It is harmful to the lungs if inhaled, so you must be attentive and try not to breathe in any loose powder - mash it into the toothpaste first. It can bind up many of the pigments from coffee, tea, and red wine that stain your teeth over time. Brush with charcoal twice a day for a week and see if you notice any difference. It's messy as sin and tastes like you faceplanted in a fireplace, but I noticed a difference. (Not a dramatic, holy-moly-this-is-a-radical-discovery kind of difference, but a definite improvement.) 

So, there you have it.  The lowdown on activated charcoal. It's a hot skincare ingredient at the moment, and I hope this helps you understand how and why it works.  After using activated charcoal in the ER so many times, and understanding the organic chemistry of how it works, I can tell you that it definitely isn't voodoo.  But it sure is a little bit of Black Magic.


Leave a Comment

Thank you for the información! I hope you have the sample size of your Detox Exfoliating Mask available soon, as I have such sensitive skin that I really want to try it first. I have a few of your products and so far I love them all. Thank you!

Connie on March 21, 2016

Thank you for this information! I love the detox exfoliating mask and now I know why :) I will definitely give the black lavender soap a try now too!

Erica on April 01, 2015