Clean Skin Miracle: Charcoal

Long before it was being mixed into $10 lemonade and infused into everything from socks to bedroom pillows, charcoal—hefty chunks of it— was in makeup artist/Shiseido artistic director Dick Page’s suitcase whenever he came back from work trips to Japan. “It’s amazing stuff,” he says. In the fridge at his Soho apartment, there’s a carafe of water with what looks like a charred stick of wood, purifying and filtering the water. By his tub, there’s a big bowlful of the same blackened branches: “Incredible in the bath,” he says. “You throw it in, and it’s just the best thing.”

Charcoal has been used since the ancient Egyptians for its powerful preservative and detoxifying properties (it’s antibacterial, antifungal, anti-odor); Native Americans used it to treat gas. From the time of the Phoenicians to the 18th-century, ships charred their water barrels to keep water stored in them potable longer. Today, it’s used medically to treat everything from acute poisoning and drug overdoses to anemia in cancer patients; it’s in air purifiers, dialysis units, and even soil-enriching compounds.

Wood is treated at high heat for several days to carbonize it into highly porous activated charcoal; the carbonizing process creates countless microscopic cavities in the wood that trap and hold toxins. One gram of Binchotan charcoal, for example, if all the cavities were flattened out, would have the same surface area as a tennis court. Because it’s so absorptive, it removes chemicals like lead, mercury, cadmium, chlorine, and copper from water. At the same time, it releases minerals you need like magnesium, calcium, potassium, and phosphates back into the water—kind of incredible.

Morihata Binchotan Charcoal Stick (1/4 lb bag) goop, $16

The simplest way to detox we know of, this Binchotan activated charcoal is fantastic: Drop it into a carafe of tap water to remove chemicals (leave for 6-8 hours for optimum results), soften water, and improve the taste; add it to a hot bath to improve circulation and detoxify, or “plant” in your garden to create healthier soil. A single stick usually lasts from three to four months—boil it once a week, and when it finally releases no bubbles, you know it’s time for a new one (you can then use it to deodorize the fridge or enrich your compost). Beyond all the health benefits, it also looks incredibly chic wherever you put it.

Activated charcoal is also huge in beauty: It helps clear and refine skin, gently but super-effectively removing dirt, impurities, and oils and treating skin with complexion-boosting minerals. “It’s known as the ‘black diamond’ of healers,” says skincare guru May Lindstrom whose eponymous clean beauty company blends activated bamboo charcoal into the famously transformative The Problem Solver Masque to treat issues from acne to eczema. “It deeply and gently cleanses your pores, absorbing minerals, toxins, impurities, and other harmful substances from your skin. Once brought to life with water, the bamboo charcoal releases many beneficial minerals, such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium.”

May Lindstrom Problem Solver Correcting Masque goop, $100

It starts out as a powder (a blend of raw cacao, bamboo charcoal, soil nutrients, and spices), only releasing its potent healing elements once mixed with water. The resulting mousse heals blemishes, fights inflammation, encourages circulation, and visibly tightens pores pretty much instantly. Use Lindstrom’s facial treatment bowl and brush to mix the paste. Full-on skin miracle, this stuff.

While most acne treatments that are that effective have harsh side effects on skin, from dryness to inflammation, charcoal treatments don’t—so even people with normal skin can take advantage of their complexion-refining capabilities. Many formulas are further bolstered with ingredients like aloe (in the cleanser from Little Barn Apothecary, below), rose essential oil (in Leland Francis’ Black Rose Bar, also below), coconut oil (as in Herbivore’s Charcoal Soap Bar, below).

Little Barn Apothecary Charcoal Cleanser goop, $25

Brilliant for breakout-prone but also normal skin, this daily miracle-working lather draws out impurities and pollution with activated charcoal, which also helps heal and prevent acne, while aloe hydrates and plumps skin, so it is left silky-soft instead of over-dry. Antibacterial cajeput and basil essential oils go deep to tighten pores, smooth skin, and reduce inflammation overall.

Leland Francis Black Rose Bar goop, $22

An amazing anti-ager as well as potent (but incredibly gentle) breakout fighter, this bar combines the healing, detoxifying power of charcoal with antioxidant African black soap—brilliant for treating acne, eczema, and psoriasis—plus rose and bergamot essential oils to hydrate, soothe, fight sunspots, and other signs of aging. The results are clear, radiant skin with a refined, clarified texture. The handmade-in-the-U.S.A., hand-cut, small-batch bars lather beautifully and gently exfoliate while leaving the skin’s lipid barrier intact, so it stays smooth and soft.

Herbivore Botanicals Bamboo Charcoal Soap Bar goop, $12

The filtering/purifying effects of Japanese bamboo charcoal make it the ultimate detoxifying cleanser for skin. This bar gently deep-cleanses and exfoliates skin, shrinking pores, absorbing oil, and sweeping away impurities for beautifully soft, smooth, clear skin. It is especially amazing if your skin is oily, combination, or blemish-prone.

Charcoal can also be infused into fibers, from which it emits all its skin healing benefits, with the added plus of helping preserve and cleanse the fiber. Konjac sponges from Japan like the Morihata one below typically combine konjac-root fibers with charcoal to create a sort of cleansing cloth/loofah hybrid that gently exfoliates and purifies skin—with or without cleanser. Morihata uses a similar process to infuse toothbrush fibers with charcoal (below); the charcoal not only freshens your breath and cleans your teeth, it also helps keep the brush itself cleaner, longer. To go even further, Curaprox makes a (pitch-black, so it takes a little getting used to) whitening activated-charcoal toothpaste called Black is White.

Morihata Binchotan Charcoal Facial Puff goop, $17

Made with micro-fine Binchotan charcoal powder and pure vegetable fibers from antibacterial Konjac root, this is a way to cleanse skin, gently exfoliate and brighten skin—with or without the addition of your favorite cleanser. It works for all skin types from sensitive and acne-prone to dry, normal, oily, or aging, as the extra-fine texture and anti-inflammatory ingredients work to promote healthy skin for everyone.

Morihata Charcoal Toothbrush goop, $8

This brush is amazing for preventing bad breath and thoroughly cleansing teeth and your whole mouth. Made with Binchotan charcoal-infused bristles, so it super-deodorizes and helps remove plaque, the brush’s natural antibacterial, preserving properties also keep the brush fresh and clean long-term.

Charcoal’s incredible variety of uses extends inside the body, too. “It’s a total super-hero ingredient,” Lindstrom says. “I’m seeing it pop up all over in skincare now, but I’ve been using it since childhood. It’s pretty magical internally—perfect for an upset stomach. When you send your animals to the vet with stomach issues or poisoning, they are given charcoal tablets!”

Drinking it in juice cleanses (Dirty Lemon makes drinkable formulas for skin and detox that consist mainly of pure lemon juice, activated charcoal, and water; and there’s a goop recipe here) or taking it in capsule form can have health benefits including glowier skin, decreasing gas and/or bloat, and even lessening hangover symptoms—but it’s important to take (or drink) only as directed. Overdo it and you strip your body of vital nutrients—the stuff is that powerful. Charcoal can also affect the absorption of drugs you’re taking, so definitely be clear on what’s the right amount for you to ingest. “Although activated charcoal can be a useful detoxifier, it is important to use only when needed as its powerful binding abilities can lead to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies if used long-term,” says Dr. Frank Lipman, founder of Be Well and the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York, as well as the author of four health books, most recently 10 Reasons You Look Old and Get Fat.

There’s definitely no limit of how often to use charcoal on skin, however. It’s as soothing as it is skin-clearing, so it truly can be used everyday by most skin types. At the same time, it’s still remarkably effective in treating acne, shrinking pores, and refining the complexion. Using charcoal to purify drinking water or bathwater can also be done as often you like.

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