Charcoal: Decoded

Charcoal skincare products have been known to trigger a few double takes. After all, this ingredient is supremely effective, both at clearing away bacteria and oil without drying out skin as at de-gunking pores without any irritation. We took a trip back to chemistry class to find out exactly how this all-natural purifier works.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Unlike the nuggets you toss in a grill, activated charcoal—also known as activated carbon—has been treated with oxygen. This process makes the charcoal much more porous, and it also exposes a large surface area of carbon. Once the carbon molecules are exposed, they’re drawn to bind with organic chemicals like toxins, odors, and contaminants—exactly what you don’t want hanging out on your skin. Activated charcoal is so powerful at removing toxins that it’s often used in water filters (those black specks you sometimes see in your Brita pitcher are harmless carbon particles) and as a treatment for victims of chemical or food poisoning.

How Does It Work?

Applied topically, activated charcoal acts like a powerful magnet, drawing out impurities, according to Los Angeles dermatologist Dr. Soheil Simzar. Charcoal can also suck out those tiny flakes of skin that over time can build up and form milia, hard white bumps under the skin’s surface that can require a doctor’s visit to remove. To keep pores free and clear, Dr. Simzar recommends a charcoal-based mask once or twice a week, like Clinique Pore Refining Solutions Charcoal Mask.

Who Should Use It?

Unless you have a specific allergy to the ingredient, all skin types can use products that feature charcoal. Dr. Simzar especially recommends charcoal for those with oily complexions and large pores, since more pollutants tend to accumulate in their skin. Our top pick: Clinique City Block™ Purifying Charcoal Cleansing Gel, which brings a gentle—yet effective—non-drying, non-stripping formula that sweeps away excess oil while removing makeup, pollution, and dirt from even the deepest of pores. Apply daily to damp skin with fingertips in a circular motion, rinse with water and, voilà: radiant skin, every day of the week!

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