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Activated Charcoal Face Masks: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Activated Charcoal Face Masks: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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Activated charcoal masks are all the rage right now. If you’ve been anywhere near social media in the last six months, you’ve doubtless seen pics and vids of people with black or grey goo smothered all over their faces. They’re more than a fun insta-pic, though. According to cosmetics companies, activated charcoal masks are the best thing this side of a chemical peel for cleansing your face, balancing oil levels, and pulling toxins out of your pores.

Sounds pretty good, but if I’ve learned one thing from my adventures in facial skincare, it’s that the better something sounds, the more damage it can potentially do (my forehead still hasn’t forgiven me for one particular exfoliation experiment). We spoke to dermatologist, Jenny who was able to give her expert low-down on activated charcoal face masks:

What is activated charcoal?

We all know what charcoal is. Activated charcoal is the same stuff as you’d put in your barbeque, but it’s been treated to increase its absorbency. “If you poison yourself”, Jenny says, “activated charcoal is one of the ways they’ll treat you. They’ll give you a charcoal drink and the charcoal will hopefully absorb the poison before it does too much damage”.

Does it work?

Can the same principle really work for skin? “Yep, in theory. Activated charcoal is super-absorbent, so the right amount can literally suck nasties from your skin. If you need a good, deep cleanse, a decent activated charcoal mask will do the job.”

Well, that’s nice and positive! However, Jenny’s face tells me that there’s a ‘but’ looming on the horizon.


“Charcoal doesn’t discriminate between good dirt and bad dirt.” Says Jenny. “Facial skin is really complicated, with a lot of layers and components to it. You need a certain amount of oil and even a bit of dead skin for your face to stay healthy. Activated charcoal doesn’t just pull pollutants and makeup and whatever out of your skin, it takes everything that’s not stuck down. That leaves the deeper layers of your skin vulnerable to damage.”

So, should we be avoiding activated charcoal face masks?

How to use activated charcoal face masks healthily

According to Jenny, if used properly activated charcoal face masks can be a great part of a skincare regime. “They’re a fantastic cleanser. I’ve seen amazing results from them. People end up with tighter pores, smoother skin, and people with oily skin prone to breakouts tend to see a lot of improvement. In fact, I’d recommend activated charcoal masks for people with breakout-prone skin.”

However, you do have to use them carefully. Here are Jenny’s simple tips for using activated charcoal masks healthily:

  • Don’t use them more than once a fortnight (once every ten days, if your skin is especially oily).
  • If you can, use the variety which rinses off with water rather than the peel-off kind.
  • Check the ingredients to ensure that there’s a balancing or moisturising agent in there as well. Lavender, shea butter and honey are good signs.
  • Be wary of harsh chemicals. Tea tree oil is Jenny’s especial bugbear. “People don’t realise how intense it really is. I’ve treated women with chemical burns from too much tea tree. Unless you’ve got a real acne problem, try and avoid charcoal masks imbued with tea tree oil. The charcoal on its own is a big deal, adding tea tree can make it really harsh on your skin.”
  • Moisturise after using. “Wash your hands and replace all that moisture you’ve stripped out!”

Happy pampering!

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