Popping up in everything from facial cleansers, sponges and face masks to cold-pressed juices, pore strips and even toothpaste, charcoal has made a name for itself as a detoxifying, deep-cleansing, super-charged ingredient. Like coconut oil and green tea before it, charcoal has moved up from being a niche beauty secret – it was first popularised this decade by Korean facialists as an add-in to mud skin treatments – to a major mainstream hit, with crushed carbon now starring in beauty products to suit all budgets.

Rather than your run-of-the-mill barbecue coal, the beauty world uses activated charcoal to fuel its products. Sourced from a variety of woods – ash, chestnut, hazel, and oak – logs are cut, left to ‘season’ in storage for a year, before being slowly fired in a kiln for around sixteen hours, reducing the wood to a delicate carbon. It’s then finely ground, put through a cold water purification process and finally treated with oxygen. The end result, the now ‘activated’ charcoal is revered for its ability to attract and hold other atoms, soaking in between 100 to 200 times its own volume. With roots in ancient Egyptian medicine and body embalming practices, activated charcoal is still used today by hospitals to treat poisoning patients, and capsules reside in many families’ first aid kits. Taken orally, it uses adsorption (an electrical attraction that pulls other outside molecules to its surface) and acts like a magnet, attracting toxins in the stomach and binding to them before they can enter the bloodstream and cause potentially fatal damage. It’s also a crucial component within household filters, with the pressurised and compacted charcoal discs trapping excess mineral residue and iodine to purify water for drinking.

Used on skin, it’s claimed that activated charcoal will act in a similar way, drawing impurities from pores so they can be rinsed off the skin along with the adsorbent charcoal. Activated charcoal is classified as an inert compound, meaning it’s a ph-balanced non-allegen that’s suitable for use on even sensitive skins. Its major draw as a skincare headliner? As a deep-cleanser for oily and acne-prone skin types. ‘Charcoal is a fantastic, natural cleanser,’ says Rowena Bird, co-founder of Lush. ‘One of our best-selling fresh cleansers, Dark Angels, has a charcoal and rhassoul mud base, which aids in soaking up excess oil, impurities and other pollution nasties that result from city living. The charcoal is also slightly gritty, so it can gently exfoliate the skin without being too rough.’ Lush has also used charcoal as a star ingredient in its Coalface solid cleanser. Aside from face washes, charcoal is now starring in a beauty counter’s worth of skincare, with the majority claiming to deep-clean problem skin, and leave your complexion as clean as a whistle. Masks are a particularly handy way to put charcoal to work, as the more time it’s in contact with your skin, the better your results. Nose strips are also getting in on the action with a similar premise, relaying on charcoal’s pure magnetism to get gunk out of your pores.

As evidenced by a new rush of charcoal-infused juices, health brands are another market chipping into the charcoal trend, with Instagram-chic black lemonades spruiked as a internal-detoxifying aid. Claiming to refresh your body from the inside out, brands such as UAE-based Detox Delight are jumping to use charcoal as one of their hero ingredients. Nicole Junghaenel, Detox Delight’s founder, says that ingesting charcoal comes with a range of benefits. ‘Activated charcoal powder mixed in water, or our great-tasting Black Lemonade, support the body’s elimination processes and help rid the body of unwanted substances,’ she says. ‘When you drink activated charcoal, toxins can bind to it. Therefore it prevents toxins and even certain poisons from being absorbed into the bloodstream.’ She attributes a long list of internal and gut issues that charcoal can relieve if taken as an early intervention treatment.
‘It can not only ease gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhoea, stomach cramps, indigestion and gas with bloating, flatulence and stomach pain,’ she enthuses. ‘It can also help with an annoying generalised itch, caused by an imbalanced level of bile in the gallbladder, named cholestasis.’ However, others are less convinced that charcoal is the wonder-supplement it’s claimed to be. ‘Charcoal is useful and proven to be effective, when taken as a single supplement,’ says Kathleen Alleaume, founder and head nutritionist of The Right Bite. ‘But as it does negates the benefits of anything it’s being taken with, there isn’t much point drinking it in a vitamins-rich green juice.’ Alleaume also disputes charcoal’s claims as a detoxifying agent. ‘Charcoal doesn’t have the ability to cleanse the body, blood-stream or gut. There’s no way to ‘detoxify’ your body, outside of the function that your organs usually perform.’

Moving from the stomach, up into the mouth, high-profile dentist Dr Richard Marques, who is known at his London home offices as ‘The King of Smiles’, says that there are advantages to using charcoal-based products to brush your teeth with – despite their seemingly counter-productive dark appearance. ‘Charcoal products bind with rough parts on teeth including surface stains and plaque, which then makes it easier to remove yellowing substances,’ he explains. ‘Once the charcoal has been given enough time to stick to the teeth, it can be removed and when it is, the mineral takes the plaque, food particles, and surface stains with it, whitening the teeth.’ However, he points out that as a natural product, charcoal will have less success brightening some smiles, with the tougher jobs better left to traditional bleaching-based solutions. ‘Because it latches onto grittiness found on the teeth, activated charcoal may not drastically change teeth that are deeply stained or naturally yellowing,’ he cautions.

While activated charcoal is proving to have its benefits, its usage may not be for everyone and every health scenario. Lush’s Bird says that charcoal-based skin products are better suited for oily and combination skin types, with the absorbent carbon often proving too successful on already dehydrated skin and further drying it out. As an internal aide, Junghaenel says like all orally-taken supplements, care should be taken with what you’re mixing it with. ‘Since activated charcoal clings to substances and traps them, taking it as a supplement can interfere with the effectiveness of other medications, [so it’s best] not to take it for at least an hour after you’ve had other tablets,’ she says, advising to check with your doctor before taking activated charcoal if you have any concerns of how it will interact with your medication.

With so many ways charcoal has been a part of beauty practices for years, why is this unassuming carbon dust only now hitting the big time? Junghaenel says that charcoal’s surge in popularity can be traced back to the pressures of our high-stress urban environments. ‘Activated charcoal is getting popular at times when detoxing is more important than ever due to an accumulation of pollutants from air, soil, drinking water, food and skin care products,’ she suggests. ‘Nowadays we are challenged continuously to keep up with elimination of adverse substances, while also facing a busy lifestyle that does not always entail enough time to tend to our own health optimally.’ She opines that a product that extols the virtues of toxin-sucking charcoal will naturally appeal to those seeking to spring-clean their bodies and environments, with users feeling lighter as a result. Sounds like a good reason to turn to the dark side, then!

Pretty gritty

Try these coal-containing treats to deep-cleanse.

Dark Angels Facial Cleanser, Lush, Dhs78, mena.lush.com

A cult favourite amongst former acne sufferers, Lush’s heavy-duty scrub soaks up oil, and buffs away scarring and red marks.

Deep Cleansing Charcoal Pore Strips, Biore, Dhs29.50, Lulu Hypermarket

These targeted strips pull out the plugs of oxidised sebum that clogs pores – otherwise known as blackheads – plus surface oil and dead cells. Beware, seeing the contents of your pores laid out on the black strip is disgustingly confronting.

Beauty Shot with Activated Charcoal (part of six-piece package), Detox Delight, Dhs150, detox-delight.ae

Flush out tummy troubles with Detox Delight’s activated charcoal supplement shot. The health food company also produces a charcoal-infused Black Lemonade and Grey Nutmilk.

Bamboo Charcoal Gentlemen’s Sponge, Konjac Sponge, Dhs75, basharacare.com

Branded for men, but suitable for everybody, this natural sponge works well alone or to enhance your usual face wash.

Balancing Masque Duo, Eminence, Dhs198, skin1.com

This two-in-one masque suits all skin types, with the charcoal half applied to the t-zone to clean pores, and the pomelo cream on cheeks and neck to hydrate.

Black Edition Paste, Diamond Whites, Dhs47, diamondwhites.co.uk

While it may be a little disconcerting to brush your teeth with a grey paste, this tube of whitening toothpaste blended with activated charcoal powder is your ticket to a brighter smile.