The Science Behind Activated Charcoal as a Skin Food

Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal has been a highly popular ingredient in all sorts of health and beauty products over the last few years.  You can find it in everything from bar soaps and facial applications to tooth pastes and nutritional supplement pills.  But why?  What’s so good about charcoal?  Let’s look at the science!

What Is Activated Charcoal?

The first thing to know is that there is a huge difference between charcoal and activated charcoal.  Unlike the match-lit stuff you use in your grills, activated charcoal (also called activated carbon) is a form of carbon processed to have very small, low-volume pores in order to increase the surface area available for adsorbtion or chemical reactions.  This can be done in either of two ways:

  1. Physical Activation: The source material is developed into activated carbons using hot gases. Air is then introduced to burn out the gasses, creating a graded, screened and de-dusted form of activated carbon. This is generally done by using one or a combination of the following processes:
    • Carbonization: Material with carbon content is pyrolyzed at temperatures in the range 600–900 °C, usually in inert atmosphere with gases like argon or nitrogen
    • Activation/Oxidation: Raw material or carbonized material is exposed to oxidizing atmospheres (oxygen or steam) at temperatures above 250 °C, usually in the temperature range of 600–1200 °C.
  2. Chemical activation: Prior to carbonization, the raw material is impregnated with certain chemicals. The chemical is typically an acid, strong base, or a salt (phosphoric acid, potassium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, calcium chloride, and zinc chloride 25%).  Then, the raw material is carbonized at lower temperatures (450–900 °C).  It is believed that the carbonization / activation step proceeds simultaneously with the chemical activation.  Chemical activation is preferred over physical activation owing to the lower temperatures and shorter time needed for activating material.

Due to its high degree of microporosity, one gram of activated carbon has a surface area in excess of 3,000 m2 (32,000 sq ft) as determined by gas adsorption.  An activation level sufficient for useful application may be obtained solely from high surface area.  Further chemical treatment often enhances adsorption properties.

Adsorbtion vs. Absorbtion

Yes, you read that word correctly – no typos here!  Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions or molecules from a gas, liquid or dissolved solid to a surface.  In other words, an adsorbant atom will grab onto another molecule and not let go – think of the way a magnet clings to a bar of steel.  Absorption is a physical or chemical phenomenon or a process in which atoms, molecules or ions enter some bulk phase – liquid or solid material. This is a different process from adsorption, since molecules undergoing absorption are taken up by the volume, not by the surface (as in the case for adsorption).

So Why is Activated Charcoal Good For My Skin?

Activated charcoal bar soap
Activated charcoal as an exfoliant is as gentle as milk on your skin.

The second thing worth noting is that activated charcoal actually isn’t a new thing.  By 1500 B.C., according to the first documented use of charcoal as written on papyrus, the Egyptians’ use of charcoal had progressed, using the material to adsorb unpleasant odors, cure intestinal ailments and even preserve the dead.  Over the ~3500 years or so since that time, science has refined the process of producing activated carbon and broadly widened the range of its applications, including skin care!

Anti-bacterial and Anti-fungal

Activated charcoal has been proven to be highly effective against Escherichia coli (aka E. Coli) and Staphylococcus aureus (Staph).  It also inhibits bacterial and fungal growth in skin and clogged pores, in turn helping to speed up the healing process from acne and skin disorders like eczema and psoriasis.

Deep Pore Cleansing

Activated charcoal provides deep pore cleansing due to its major adsorbtion properties.  By adhesion in an extremely thin layer of molecules to the surfaces of solid bodies or liquids with which it comes into contact, it acts as a glue or magnet to draw extremely small substances and contaminants to the surface of the skin where they can be washed and rinsed away.  This is why activated charcoal is so prized by people with oily, clogged skin.  Adsorbing impurities and bringing them to the surface makes detoxifying dirty skin a breeze.


Because its adsorbant properties leave skin clog-free, your pores focus less on producing oils to rid themselves of impurities.  Too much of this natural oil production can actually contribute to the clogging of the pores in the first place!  With continued use of activated charcoal skin care products (including soaps, scrubs and masks), over time pores appear and become smaller – therefore major oil production is no longer needed.  Activated charcoal can help break unhealthy cycles of oil overproduction, bringing healthy balance back to your skin.

Gentle Exfoliation

Powdered activated charcoal is slightly gritty so it makes a wonderful exfoliant!  Exfoliation is a crucial part of a healthy skin care regimen because it helps your skin shed its dull, dead layers so that new and healthier skin underneath can shine it’s brightest.

Smooth and Refined Appearance

With all of the anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, pore-cleansing and conditioning, and exfoliating benefits of activated charcoal, your skin gets a brand new canvas to work with.  Cleansing your skin of unwanted toxins and contaminants will improve your skin’s radiance and brightness.

Activated charcoal can be found in our Activated Charcoal Bars and Masks!