As I started writing this post, I got a big ol’ zit: Red, inflamed, and obvious. Was it the change in the weather? My not-totally-wholesome diet? Whatever the cause, I had to get rid of it as quickly as possible. And, because I’m trying to be more conscious of keeping potentially nasty ingredients out of my beauty products (it is Earth Day, after all), I found a more natural (and perhaps strange-sounding) approach to help banish blemishes: Charcoal.
What It Is:
Think of the ashy-looking pieces left behind after burning logs over a fire – that’s charcoal. Most often, it’s the after-product of plant sources like trees, bamboo or coconut husks. And (quick chemistry lesson here) charcoal is a form of carbon, one of those “building blocks of life” that’s in every living thing. Hint: If you see “carbon” on an ingredient list, it’s code for charcoal.
What It’s Used For:
Charcoal burns at extremely high temperatures – 2,700 degrees – and is used by blacksmiths to shape and mold metal. Pre-Industrial Revolution, charcoal was used in the steel industry for the same purpose. And because charcoal is great at absorbing things like odors and toxins, you can buy it to freshen the air, filter your water (it’s used by Brita) and even as remedy for ingesting poison.
What It Does:
Clearly there are a multitude of uses for the powdery, ashen stuff, but why was I seeing it in so many “oil-controlling” and anti-acne treatments? Well, thanks to charcoal’s large surface area, it’s able to attract and hold other substances to its surface, says Liz Bennett, co-founder of Lush Cosmetics. “It can mop up excess oils, remove impurities and exfoliate the skin,” she says. Jack Davies, co-founder of Collective Wellbeing, adds, “The primary benefit of charcoal is that it is an extremely effective cleanser.”
Charcoal is inert, so packaging isn’t an issue. In beauty products, you’ll tend to see the term “activated charcoal” meaning that the plant source was heated to an extreme temperature very quickly without the presence of oxygen. “If charcoal isn’t activated, the countless tiny holes that absorb the substances around them are blocked and cannot perform the full effect,” says Alyssa Kobel, director of marketing for Boscia skincare. How to know that you’re getting a product chock-full of charcoal? “As a rule of thumb, a product containing charcoal should look dark gray to pitch black and charcoal should be one of the top ingredients,” says Davies.
Who Should Use It:
If you’re looking for exfoliating and deep cleansing, charcoal is your go-to. Kobel says it’s not an ideal ingredient for sensitive or dry skin, but I was able to use a range of charcoal-based products on my redness-prone face.
Where To Find It:
So, back to where I started…getting rid of this zit. I switched to Lush Cosmetics’ Coalface Cleanser in an effort to dry up my breakout. I used the soap at night to totally de-congest my skin after a long day. It wasn’t drying, but I avoided my eyes, which tend to be bothered by stronger formulas. My favorite of their charcoal products though, is the Dark Angels Cleanser, which makes for a really gritty, powerful scrub. It relies on sustainably-harvested English Lumpwood (pictured at left) to produce its almost-black color and coarse texture. The color is its coolest quality; the pure black shade gave me such a shock when I rubbed it on my face. (It’s pretty grainy, so be careful not to scrub too hard.) Afterward, I had a rosy glow. I felt like Mother Earth herself.
In an effort to totally de-gunk my skin, I tried Boscia’s Pore Purifying Black Strips (pictured at left). I felt more like a linebacker with a breathing problem than a beauty explorer. In fifteen minutes, I pulled off the strip and saw…what looked like peach fuzz. I can’t say that the pore strip met my expectations, but maybe I just have a blackhead-free nose. Probably not.
I’m not a girly-girl, but the Y-chromosome feeling and dark gray hue of Collective Wellbeing’s Charcoal Body Wash (pictured above) was a departure for me. Some fans claim that it makes their skin feel smoother and extra-clean. I didn’t notice any major difference, but decided it’s a good choice on the days I’ve gone for a run – it’ll really wash away excess oils and sweat. Oh, and that gray color? It turned into nice, colorless suds.
top photo: Thinkstock