A helpful message for all skin types: you don’t need expensive vitamin c serums, alpha hydroxy acids, or hyaluronic acid skin care products to have beautiful skin. Charcoal may be all you need.

My love for activated charcoal began in the 1990s while working with clients on movie sets. Their pores were congested from the layers of makeup, heat from artificial lighting, and frequent travel. I spent countless hours trying different ingredients and techniques to clean their pores but had a hard time finding anything effective and efficient enough.

One day on set, the water filter pitcher suddenly piqued my interest. I knew that the filter inside contained activated charcoal but was curious as to how and why it worked to filter water. After some research, I had my lightbulb moment: if the activated charcoal pulls undesirable particulates out of water, maybe it can do the same for skin.

I dove into the intricacies of activated charcoals and examined the pros and cons of the various types. I chose the best and started formulating, using my celebrity clients as test subjects. The results were conclusive—this was the missing piece of the skincare puzzle I had been trying to solve.

Activated charcoal acts like a magnet by adhering to gunk in our pores and drawing it out. This allows skin to breathe and function properly. When our pores are congested, nothing we put on our skin can penetrate, and anything that should be expelled can’t get out. This causes the trapped oils in your skin to go rancid, which breaks down collagen, accelerating skin aging. Furthermore, it can exacerbate ailments, such as acne, dryness, excessive oil, and rosacea.

For years, I only used activated charcoal on my celebrity clients’ skin. Their pores had been my impetus and I thought their specific lifestyle was to blame. It hadn’t occurred to me that others might suffer from similar issues. But I soon discovered that pore congestion is incredibly common issue affecting people from all walks of life.

Our infatuation with silicone-based hair conditioners, combined with the invention of makeup primers exacerbates the problem. In 2000 I released the detox face care line at Sumbody, long before skin detoxing or activated charcoal were en vogue. Since then, it has become more popular and activated charcoal products widely accessible. That said, keep in mind that not all activated charcoals are created equal.

The base material of the activated charcoal is critical, as not all are appropriate for skin use. Look for products that contain either coconut hull or bamboo charcoal. Their high surface-to-weight ratio makes them the ultimate skin purifiers. They’re dotted with millions of micropores that allow them to capture, bind to, and draw out toxins.

This extraordinary cleaning capacity enables proper skin functioning and is why using it leaves it feeling smooth and supple. On the other hand, wood and peat-based activated charcoals tend to have larger pores that are only effective in filtering out bigger molecules.

It’s also important to consider the activation process: steam or chemical. Chemical activation uses phosphoric acid to create a porous network at a lower temperature. This is a quicker manufacturing technique used by large-volume producers but carries the risk of leaving behind chemical residue. For this reason, it’s best to stick with steam-activated charcoals for skin care.

What You Can Do To Keep Your Pores Clear Beyond Charcoal 

  • Wash your face twice a day and remove makeup at night before going to bed.
  • Avoid products containing “cones,” which are chemicals, such as dimethicone or silicone. While cones aren’t the worst health offenders, they’re a nightmare for skin. Think of it like putting a sheet of plastic wrap over your face—suffocating.
  • Avoid comedogenic (pore-clogging) oils.
  • Read the ingredients carefully. Makeup primers are big “cone” culprits and may feel amazing when applied but take skin congestion to the next level of dysfunction by making it much harder to clear and clean.
  • Many hair care products are loaded with cones. And though they aren’t applied directly to skin, they often flow over it. If you’re attached to your products, try washing your hair to the side or in the sink.
  • If you frequently engage in dust-filled activities, like baking, gardening, or sports, or live in a highly polluted area, it’s a good idea to carry face pads/wipes with you to remove dirt immediately after.
  • Stay hydrated. Our bodies are comprised of up to 60% water, but if that water is stagnant it gets scummy. Strive to be a clear, flowing stream, rather than a mucky pond.

Awareness grows over time. We’re only at the beginning of discovering the importance of caring for skin. Skin’s power of absorption is both a blessing and a curse. It allows toxins and pollution to enter but also gives us the power to nourish and enrich our system with healthy ingredients, such as activated charcoal.

We must keep our skin clean. Accumulating waste in our pores is incredibly detrimental. Imagine if we never swept or mopped our houses: dust and grime would build up until they were uninhabitable. The same goes for our skin. Maintenance, along with occasional deep-cleans, is key.

Article by Debbi Burnes, founder of Sumbody, natural products for your body. For more natural beauty recipes, check out Debbi Burne’s book, Natural Beauty Skin Care: 110 Organic Formulas for a Radiant You!

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