Activated charcoal has been around in health shops for a while now, loved for its ability to aid detoxification in the body. Over the last few years it has also started to pop up on the beauty circuit in everything from shampoos and body washes to face masks and toothpaste. So what is it? How does it work? And is it worth trying? Here’s what you need to know.
What is it?
Charcoal becomes activated when it is exposed to extreme temperatures, thereby expanding the surface area. Medically it is well known as a way of removing toxins from the body.
“Activated charcoal is used to bind to heavy metals and other toxins in the body for easy flushing,” explains Dr Sonia Couto, a phytotherapist based in Cape Town. “It is often used to treat food poisoning, heavy metal or pollutant exposure, and externally can be made into a poultice for bee stings and other bites to draw out poisons.”
Unfortunately you can’t just grind up braai brikettes to improve your health. Activating charcoal is pretty complicated. Dermalogica training specialist Unine van Rooyen explains the process behind Activated Bichotan Charcoal, which is used in a few of their skincare products:
“Binchotan Charcoal is “activated” by heating Japanese Ubame Oak branches at extremely high temperatures (1,000°C/1,832°F) then rapidly cooling them down. This process erodes the charcoal’s internal surfaces, increasing its adsorption capacity by creating an internal network of micropores. (adsorption involves the adhesion of one substance onto the surface of another). The result: a carbonized, mineral-rich material that can adsorb more than 1 000 times its weight in positively-charged compounds.”
Try: Dermalogica Charcoal Rescue Masque (R790, dermalogica.co.za)
Activated charcoal has unique absorbent properties and it is often used in masks to purify your skin, acting like a magnet to attract and remove dirt and oil. “It is great for oily, congested, breakout prone skin in a powder form or exfoliator,” explains van Rooyen. “It is purifying and will help remove pollution that adheres (collects on the surface) throughout the day. Binchotan charcoal will also help remove debris from the pores.” If you have an oily skin, look for a product that combines activated charcoal with kaoline and bentonite clays for added oil absorption.
Van Rooyen does advise caution if you have sensitive skin. “When you have very sensitive skin or suffer from a very dry skin, using charcoal daily or two to three times a week in a masque form can be drying to the skin. So choose the right formula with a high quality charcoal and avoid using it if you suffer with sensitive skin, eczema or very dry skin. You should also be careful if you suffer from rosacea.”
Try: Orchard Black Magik Cold Pressed Juice (R46 for 300ml, orchardonlong.co.za)
“Activated charcoal is commonly used to prevent the absorption of most poisons or toxins in the stomach and intestine by binding to or neutralizing to them,” explains Tim Spence from Orchard on Long Juice and Health Bar in Cape Town. “If your body is at risk of being poisoned or highly toxic it can help neutralize/counteract/antidote this. It’s also great in the treatment of gas/bloating and removing fungal toxins and parasites.”
For the same reason, activated charcoal is praised as a hangover cure since it “absorbs chemicals and toxins, and allows the removal of these more rapidly,” explains consulting dietitian Judith Johnson. She does add that it is important to drink plenty of water if you are using activated charcoal in this way.
Spence does, however, advise that you consult a doctor before introducing activated charcoal into your lifestyle. “If you take activated charcoal together with pharmaceutical medication/drugs it may decrease the effectiveness of the drugs as it doesn’t discern between pharmaceutical drugs and poisons/toxins,” says Spence. And according to Johnson it should be avoided during pregnancy since there has not been enough research done on the topic.
Spence also emphasises the fact that you still need to adhere to a healthy lifestyle. “Any ‘detoxing agent’ needs to be combined with an overall healthy lifestyle if it is to be truly effective. You need to support your body’s ability to do what it was naturally built to do. There are no ‘quick fixes’ or shortcuts to health – it’s a daily conscious, commitment.”
To purify water
Try: KURO-Bō (R235 per stick + shipping, which lasts 3 months, Wellness Warehouse & Faithful to Nature)
Activated charcoal can even be used to purify tap water. An exciting newbie on the market is the KURO-Bō charcoal sticks. These are handcrafted, organic and they don’t come in a cartridge so there is zero wastage.
It’s a bit more work than a standard water filter. You place the charcoal stick in boiling water for 10 minutes to “activate” it (and remove any residual powder that would stain your water), after which you can pop it in the jug of drinking water. This then needs to stand for a couple of hours so that the water can purify. You also have to boil the stick again every month to reactivate it.
It’s a pretty easy and elegant way to reduce your (ahem) carbon footprint and enjoy really tasty, pure water.
To whiten teeth
Try: Curaprox Black Is White whitening toothpaste (R280 for 90ml, shop.curaprox.co.za)
If you experience sensitivity caused by bleach, it is worth trying activated charcoal toothpaste as an alternative. According to the internet, you can simply mix charcoal powder (the store-bought stuff) with water to form a toothpaste consistency, and then brush your teeth with it. However, if this sounds like a frightening concept you also have the option to buy toothpastes with activated carbon.
“This is a very old and proven method,” says Matthias Mütsch, Dr. sc. nat. ETH and developer of all Curaprox toothpastes. Activated carbon particles simply absorb dirt and discoloration particles ‘like a vacuum cleaner’.” In their toothpastes, the whitening effect of activated carbon is supplemented by optical means: a blue filter that reduces yellow discoloration. This helps to make teeth appear whiter without the use of chemical agents.
I tried the Curoprox toothpaste for a couple of weeks and while you won’t get the dramatic effects of bleach, I did notice a slight whitening without any sensitivity.
About KURO-Bō Activated Charcoal
Centuries ago, artisans in the Japanese region of Wakayama, perfected the art of creating Binchōtan – a unique activated charcoal. Involving a meticulous production process, Binchotan is still highly prized today across the US, Europe and Asia as a highly effective air and water purifier, as well as a clean burning, high temperature fuel for cooking and an organic soil enricher.
Faithful to the ancient Japanese process, KURO-Bō Activated Charcoal is derived from sustainably-sourced, high quality hardwood which is baked in a special kiln, and then hand-cut. Unlike other water purification systems, KURO-Bō Activated Charcoal does not aggressively strip the water, removing both the good with the bad. Tests have shown that the charcoal significantly reduces levels of lead, copper, mercury, iron, aluminium, manganese and all traces of chlorine from tap water. At the same time, it uniquely and naturally enriches the water with beneficial minerals, that other leading filtration systems remove entirely.