What in the World is Activated Charcoal?

Remember the first time that one friend suggested you try a skin product with activated charcoal?

     What?! Put coal? On my face? … On purpose?

Well, that friend was right this time. Activated charcoal is a force for good, a fighter of icky, a superhero taker-away of all that we don’t want on (or in!) our skin.

A definition is in order. Activated charcoal is not coal. Sure, the two share a syllable and they share the same ingredient list–carbon, carbon, and carbon–but coal is a millenia-old pressurized piece of carbon while charcoal is the carbon that is left after burning wood. Or coconut husks. Or bamboo. You know, woody carbony stuff. This newer charcoal is super-heated (over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit) to become activated charcoal.

It’s that super-heating that gives charcoal its new name, and “activated” is quite fitting. The result from the heat is a carbon full of connected holes, like a bundle of mesh. Which doesn’t sound very special, I know. But IT IS! Activated carbon has more surface area than you can imagine. OK, it’s more than I can imagine, but here it is: one teaspoon of activated carbon has more surface area than, say, a football field. Really.

The reason we like this surface area is because it’s really adsorbent. That is not a misspelling like I first thought. Adsorbent means it binds other things to its surface instead of taking them inside itself. Since activated charcoal has a lot of surface it has a lot of points available for binding. This holey-y carbon is SUPER good at making friends with all the like-sized things around it. Meaning it bonds with those teeny-tiny toxins and impurities that we want gone from our skin. Or gone from our water. Or from our insides.

A bonus is that our bodies don’t absorb activated charcoal so it just picks up its new buddies and goes away to play somewhere else. Do you see the simple beauty of the physics that is “activated charcoal”? It’s amazing. Tell your friend thank you.

 

Where I learned about activated charcoal:

  1. https://activated-carbon.com/what-is-activated-carbon/
  2. https://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(02)07065-8/fulltext
  3. https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/environment-natural-resources/filtration-sediment-activated-carbon-and-mixed-media#section-4
  4. Encyclopedia of Materials: Science and Technology, 2001