A woman applying beauty mask. Image Credit: Agency

LONDON: Sometimes you don’t notice a new fad until you bump into it, say at the supermarket. Soap, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, masks, Epsom salts. Charcoal has been the “it” ingredient for a while now.

Charcoal works so well that emergency room physicians have used it for decades to counter the ingestion of poisons. Because charcoal and water don’t mix, and charcoal isn’t absorbed by the body, unwanted substances bind to charcoal (the scientific term is “adsorption”) and it passes safely through your gut. You may have also seen charcoal in air and water filters.

But what about the claims in the health and beauty industry?

They are banking on the fact that if charcoal binds to impurifications in air or water, it will do the same on our bodies. But scientific proof is hard to come by.

The greatest saturation of charcoal-based products is in skin care.

UK beauty brand Yes To claims to be the first to launch charcoal in new forms such as facial wipes (the wipe is black) and masks. Chief executive Ingrid Jackel wrote in an email: “Charcoal is definitely the hottest ingredient in skin care today because it works. It helps remove nasties from your skin, naturally, helps balance oily skin, fight blackheads, make pores appear smaller, soothe skin irritations and fight blemishes, leaving skin clear, fresher and healthier-looking. Who doesn’t want that?”

But will you get that?

No controlled studies

Megan Rogge, a dermatologist at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center, says that while she understands charcoal’s appeal in a culture obsessed with detoxifying and cleansing, “there have been no controlled studies to say charcoal gives you a clean skin like no other or produces any significant change in skin.”

Rogge says activated charcoal is safe and does not irritate the skin. But she doesn’t see it doing a better job than traditional soap.

Opinions on the efficacy of charcoal toothpaste are split. Benjamin Schwartz, an associate professor at Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College says, “In general, charcoal toothpaste to whiten teeth is OK in moderation, but not everyday use.

“Charcoal is abrasive, and while charcoal toothpaste may remove some surface stains, it could also damage your teeth by scrubbing off that top layer of enamel or cause painful tooth sensitivity,” he says.

If you want to try charcoal toothpaste for whitening, Schwartz recommends you do your homework. Try to determine its RDA [see box] and check if it contains fluoride (many do not). Then, alternate it with your regular brand.

As with skin care, no studies show that using charcoal products for oral health does any good. The only known review, from 2017 in the Journal of the American Dental Association, concludes there is insufficient clinical and laboratory data to support the effectiveness of charcoal in oral care products.

What is charcoal?

Charcoal is created by super-heating carbon-rich materials such as wood, coconut shells, bamboo and olive pits. The process leaves behind a concentrated black substance made mostly of carbon that can be used as fuel.

What is ‘activated charcoal’?

To give charcoal superpowers, you “activate” it, typically steaming at high temperatures. That opens up the carbon structure and eliminates substances harmful to humans. What remains is exceptionally porous, riddled with tunnels and nooks that act like magnets to grab dirt, oil and toxins.