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The Charcoal Trend. It may be a bit rubbish.

August 8, 2015

I bought a face wash that contained charcoal as one of the active ingredients yesterday. Why, because it is a bit of a trend, I’ve got customers asking for it and I wanted to see what was ‘out there’.

Charcoal wash

The product that I purchased mentions that the charcoal powder draws out impurities and also removes excess dirt and oil – isn’t all dirt ‘excess’ but anyway, I was fascinated at how something so dirty could do so much good.

But that’s just it you see, charcoal can’t necessarily do ANYTHING good for your skin unless it’s activated but once it’s activated it does have a whole range of special powers.

Charcoal  picture sourced from wikipedia

So let’s explore the difference.

Charcoal – This is what you get when you burn carbon rich material such as wood at relatively low heat (up to 500C) in a low oxygen environment. The moisture is driven out of the wood to leave a mixture of carbon and ash.  Cosmetically it will do nothing more than give your product a grey/black colour which is quite nice (sometimes) but isn’t really anything to shout home about.

Activated Charcoal/ Activated Carbon  – Produced from a number of starting materials including coconut, charcoal or wood activated carbon / charcoal (both names are used for this material) by super-heating and oxidising it (chemical change involving the addition of oxygen usually from steam).   Unlike regular charcoal manufacture which is done without oxygen at low temperatures, Activated Charcoal is produced by heating to up to 1000C with steam (oxygen) in a pressurised environment.

The physical difference between regular charcoal and activated charcoal is a bit like the difference between regular chocolate and bubbled chocolate:

Chocolate slab and chocolate bubblesBubble chocolate

Those bubbles (or pores) are a product of the hot steam blowing through the charcoal mass. It is these pores that give activated charcoal its special powers of:

  • Oil Absorbing
  • Toxin pulling.
  • Mattifying.
  • Deep Cleansing.

Without the pores you got nothing but a dirty ashen face.

I spoke to one of Australia’s top producers of activated charcoal and found out that for a charcoal to be classified as truly ‘active’ it needs to have a surface area of at least 500 m2 per gram (or degree of bubbliness).  Typically grades that are used in industry have a surface area of between 900-2000 m2 per gram.  Once the charcoal has achieved this spec it can be put to work in many applications including water filtration, cleaning up spills at sea or in industry,  cleaning up vegetable oils before they are put onto the market for food or cosmetic use (I’ve tried this one before), soil improvement and much, much more.  It really is a useful product.

In terms of cosmetic use I found activated charcoal to be very, very active and pretty hard to manage in a formula actually.  As I mentioned above Activated Carbon has a great oil absorbing ability but this is not so great if you want to add it to an emulsion or oil-based product – if your oil is pulled out of your formula and sucked into the carbon pores your product might just dry up or fall apart. I do know how to fix this but I’m not going to give away all of my secrets on here as quite a bit of work was involved in getting the balance between efficacy and stability right so sorry about that.

In terms of efficacy I have found that activated carbon leaves the skin feeling warm when it is applied to it.  I quite liked that feature (it’s similar to zeolite) and am using it in a couple of formulations to that effect. It also does mop up excess oil and I’m sure the heating sensation means that it is pulling moisture/ oil  from the skin which could be useful just as long as it can be balanced (don’t want a dry face) and it does feel quite cleansing so I would say that activated carbon gets the thumbs up from me.

So Buyer Beware.

  • Charcoal is not the same as activated charcoal.
  • Activated charcoal is probably the same as activated carbon so if your product says ‘activated carbon’ it is probably going to work.
  • The INCI name for these products is ‘Charcoal Powder’ regardless of whether it is activated or not  – I couldn’t track down another listing so the cosmetic industry doesn’t seem to differentiate this making it hard to know what you are getting.
  • Brands wanting to get this sort of product right should be using activated material and can always use the word ‘activated’ in brackets after the INCI name to help back up their claims.
  • Brands using regular charcoal or who haven’t thought to ask their formulators about which charcoal is being used should not be making claims about drawing out impurities or removing excess oil unless their formulation contains other active ingredients with those features.

So there you have it

and yes, my charcoal formulations will be containing the active stuff.

Amanda  x

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