Lookit all those charcoal-laden products! If such products work, why don't we all have awesomely detoxed skins?
So there is a lot of charcoal-laden skincare out there. But is there any truth to all the claims these products make? That's a question that's worth answering.
Charcoal first got its reputation for being "cleansing" due to its ability to adsorp a range of unsavory by-products and poisons, including chlorine, odors, and pigments (although there are some exceptions, such as iron, lithium, potassium, and ethanol). This makes it useful particularly for certain functions, such as surface water (like rivers) and treating drinking water (e.g. all those Brita water filters). It also seems to have some help with treating poisoning when taken orally, although as you might expect its effectiveness is also partly influenced by time and dosage, so it doesn't work all the time. So that's our primer on charcoal and activated charcoal: great for purifying water, and might help with poisoning when taken orally.
So it's easy to see how charcoal got its reputation for being able to purify things. And from there, it's also easy to see how from there, some creative product manager in a company thought, "Hey, if people believe that charcoal helps to purify their water and their innards, then they should believe that it purifies their skin, too! Mmm, charcoal face scrubs and cleansers...Mmm...MONEY! Let's do this, baby!" But of course, purifying the water in a plant and adsorbing to impurities when taken orally are pretty different. So rather than just jumping to conclusions (charcoal in body works = charcoal on face works), we really have to go back to review the literature available, and see what it says about charcoal applied to the skin.
Things that charcoal CAN do: clean your water. Things that charcoal CAN'T do: clean your skin. (Source)
And so, what does the scientific literature say? Well, sadly, when I delved through the scientific literature (PubMed is absolutely my BFF for things like this), I couldn't find anything at all demonstrating that charcoal, or activated charcoal for that matter, led to an improvement in skin quality when applied topically, especially in the cosmetic kind of way we are looking for. The closest studies I could find dealing with charcoal and skin looked at the effectiveness of using activated charcoal dressing to reduce smell in wounds. There is also some evidence that when applied topically it treats porphyrias, but basically, all of the demonstrated effective skin-related uses for charcoal are basically either involving ingesting the charcoal, or else applying it directly to wounds. Beyond such medical uses, there isn't any proof that it will work to effect cosmetic changes when applied topically to uninjured skin, which is what you are looking for ion a skincare product.
And now I think you know what my conclusion will be even before I type it out, but first, let's give you a friendly nice infographic, courtesy of yours truly fooling around on the computer:
Be a smart shopper: Most charcoal-containing products rely on other workhorse ingredients to clean your skin.
But just in case that infographic didn't make sense to you: what does this mean for us, consumers told to buy this or that charcoal mask? Well, what it means is that, there is no literature to say that it will do anything for your skin. The most concrete use of charcoal in skincare products that I can think of is that including black charcoal beads in scrubs will be a pretty cool-looking exfoliator. But it definitely won't "detox" or "purify" your skin or whatever grandiose terms the marketers are putting out there (in anycase, I find the concept of "detoxing" an organ like your skin more of a marketing concept than a scientifically useful one). For what it's worth, most products that advertise their charcoal product as being "purifying" or cleansing, tend to include other ingredients that are responsible for the cleaning effect, e.g. salicylic acid to dissolve the oil in your pores, kaolin clay or talc to absorb oil, and so on. So it's not that a product advertising charcoal won't work. It might, but if it does, you can bet that it will be these other workhorse ingredients that do the job, not the charcoal. The inclusion of charcoal just sounds sexier from a marketing perspective.
So if a product advertised with charcoal is something you like - say, maybe you like the packaging, brand, or even colour, go ahead and buy it. But just don't put your hard-earned money into a product because you expect the charcoal to do magic on your skin, because there is no proof that it will do anything. More than likely, it will be the other ingredients that do the job, not the charcoal, and as a savvy shopper, you'll probably want to look at the formulation in its entirety, rather than just hinge your buying decision on a single marketing ingredient.