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What's the deal with charcoal cleansers?

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

Miracle versus myth

A beauty trend as counter-intuitive as rubbing dirt on your face — nay, dirt collected from the bowels of the earth — is likely to have some evidence backing its practice, right?

Woman washing face with charcoal cleanser

Photo credit: Arkady Chubykin/Hemera/360/Getty Images

This assumption is what caused me to impulsively buy Biore's Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser, which stood out to me in a sea of charcoal cleansers solely because it was under $7. Once I brought my new baby home, though, I started feeling more skeptical.

The scientific foundation for charcoal cleansers

Biore's Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser

If you're as cynical as me, take heart: The charcoal trend is actually based on science. Activated charcoal — which you can find at your local pharmacy — is simply carbon treated with oxygen. The oxygen adds tiny, absorptive pockets to each granule of charcoal so it can slurp up impurities and toxins from its surroundings. Seriously. This is why overdose patients are given activated charcoal when they arrive in the emergency room. It absorbs drug toxins and poisons from the digestive tract so that patients don't die of overdose.

Not only that, activated charcoal is well-known for whitening teeth, purifying water and filtering farts. Now, that's some gritty grit. But how does it measure up as the cleansing component of your beauty regimen?

Charcoal for skin care

The jury is in, and it turns out that charcoal can actually be great for your complexion, especially if you deal with the tricky combination of oily and sensitive skin. The absorptive characteristics of charcoal can remove stubborn dirt, makeup and oil, without fear of a chemical-based allergic reaction. Furthermore, a National Institutes of Health study found that activated charcoal can effectively remove lingering bacteria from the skin, which may prevent acne infections.

How to find the right charcoal product

Origins Clear Improvement

Unfortunately, not all charcoal cleansers are made alike. I was right to be skeptical of my Biore product, because 1) I strongly dislike it, 2) it doesn't have enough charcoal in it to make a difference, and 3) even if it did have more charcoal, consumers must remove it from the skin before it can absorb anything.

When you look for a product, make sure that charcoal is listed at the top of the ingredients. Sad to say, but some companies are profiting off the charcoal trend by dyeing their products black and removing charcoal from the equation entirely. Also, make sure you purchase a product that is designed to stay on the skin for five to 10 minutes. Most facial cleansers are only on the skin for about a minute, which doesn't give charcoal any time to absorb dirt. Your best bet is to look for a charcoal facial mask instead, like Origins Clear Improvement. (Origins, $24) 

More about skin care

Minimalist's guide to skin care
Your guide to skin care in the sun
4 Dermatologists dish on their skin care routines

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