If the pumpkin spice craze caught you off guard, consider this your warning: You can now find “activated charcoal” in drinks, toothpastes, face washes, pills, and powders. People are swallowing the stuff, smearing it on their faces, and slathering it on their teeth—all in the name of cleansing, detoxing, and health.
While activated charcoal's alleged benefits to the body are not new, its metastasizing presence in mainstream health and beauty products is. From Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP to the lofty towers of Vogue, countless headlines have propelled the belief that charcoal has the ability to act like a vacuum in your body, sucking up toxins and chemicals—fueling the consumer frenzy.
But does stuffing your face with charcoal actually work? Take an average woman like me—skin sensitive to everything, teeth yellowed from 29 years of life, and a digestive tract that could be processing anything from Mallomars to whiskey on a given day. The notion that I could purchase a three-in-one miracle cleanse for my entire corporal possession is something I want to believe in. Not to mention the claim that charcoal is the elusive hangover cure we've been waiting for.
So I recently bought all manner of charcoal products—charcoal powder for toothpaste and facial cleanser, charcoal supplements, a charcoal infused juice—and tested them out.
But first, what do product labels mean by "activated charcoal"? This is not the stuff you use to fire up the grill. Don't go eating that.
You may already know that all charcoal is essentially burnt organic matter, usually made from coconut shells, peat, or wood. The "activation" in "activated charcoal" comes from a special process during which the charcoal is exposed to gasses at high temperatures. This process gives the charcoal a very porous surface that acts as a sort of magnet, binding with everything it can get its greedy paws on.
I took my regular tooth brush, squeezed on my regular tooth paste, then dipped my brush into activated charcoal powder and went to work like I normally would. Proponents of activated charcoal say charcoal binds with bacteria in your mouth and plaque on your teeth, leaving your mouth cleaner and fresher, and your teeth whiter.
If you never matured past the age of eight, you will greatly enjoy this process. Few things bring such unexpected joy as blacking out your entire mouth. And the charcoal had zero taste. It felt and tasted just like a normal brushing session.
"They look really white," I'm saying. (Placebo? Maybe.) And as the tongue action suggests, my teeth felt so smooth afterwards, like the kind of clean you only get after a visit to the dentist.
I would highly recommend the teeth brushing, but as Gina Keatley, a New York City-based certified dietitian and nutritionist, told me—don’t do this every day or the abrasive charcoal could damage your enamel. I plan to stick with twice a month.
I made this facial cleanser on my own, mixing activated charcoal powder, olive oil, and a little warm water. It looks just like it feels—like you volunteered to host a BP oil spill on your face.
Proponents say that activated charcoal binds with pore-clogging toxins and dirt that causes acne and also relieves inflammation.
If you want to try the facial cleanser, do so at your own risk. It’s not that the charcoal smelled weird or burned—it didn't—but I spent twenty minutes trying to rub the cleanser off my skin.
That’s me saying, “I can’t get it off!!”
It only wiped off after multiple rinses, and my skin didn’t feel or look any the better for it.
Ingesting charcoal was the most difficult mode for me to wrap my head around. The charcoal, so impenetrably black, looks like nothing you should put in your mouth. But several companies sell charcoal-infused drinks, and the popular juice store chain Juice Generation reports that its line of charcoal-based beverages has been one of its most successful product launches.
So, I stopped by New York City juice store LuliTonix and picked up a charcoal-infused lemonade.
The biggest surprise of this experiment was that the charcoal had no smell or taste—the juice tasted just like regular lemonade. While believers claim activated charcoal flushes their system, decreases bloating, promotes good digestion, and helps restore mental clarity, personally, that was not my experience. I felt the same before drinking it as I did afterward, but that could be because my system is already operating in mint condition. (It's not.)
One word of caution, should you decide to ingest charcoal yourself—you never want to swallow it with anything you actually want in your body. As Lianna Sugarman, the founder of LuliTonix warned, "The charcoal is basically sucking everything in, so you definitely don't want to take it within two hours of medication."
So there you have it. Should some crude inquisitor ask, "Hey Cleo, spit or swallow on charcoal?" I'd say "swallow," because the teeth brushing really did leave my mouth feeling unusually clean. The face wash? Run for the hills. And those $10 drinks? I don't know. The amount of charcoal in them is negligible, so if you really want to experience the effects, you're probably better off taking capsules, which will give you a more concentrated dose.
My experiment was not a scientific one, but many health experts are skeptical of the trend. Dr. Donald Hensrud, an internist at the Mayo Clinic, told Harpers Bizarre it's a "shot gun approach" to health. And Beth Warren, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told the New York Post, “I don’t really see a purpose," adding, "I think it’s going on the fad of ‘detox, detox, detox.’ ”
Some experts also warn that because activated charcoal can't distinguish between the nutrients you want to keep in your system and the chemicals you want to flush, using it comes with risks.
The experts are conflicted on this, but science says no. While activated charcoal binds with almost everything it comes into contact with, one thing charcoal doesn't bind easily with is alcohol. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Alcohol is Kryptonite for all of us, including activated charcoal.
Cleo Stiller is a digital producer covering the intersections of sex, tech and culture. Words to live by: get your money's worth.