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Charcoal Face Masks: Pros, Cons, and the Best Ones to Use ----- Back

18.11.19 - Knowledge

Charcoal Face Masks: Pros, Cons, and the Best Ones to Use

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Words by Antoinette Barnardo

Would you ever wear a charcoal face mask?

It may sound outrageous, but charcoal — specifically, activated charcoal — is a common skincare ingredient praised for its purifying properties. But how does it work? And how can we be sure it’s a safe ingredient to use? 

Fortunately, charcoal has a number of benefits in maintaining a healthy complexion. However, it’s important to use this ingredient in a way that’s sustainable for your skin as well as the environment. 

What Is Activated Charcoal?

When you think of charcoal, you likely picture briquettes in a backyard grill. That’s not the same ingredient as is used in skincare products. Instead, you’ll find what’s called activated charcoal. It’s a powdery made from bamboo, coconut husk, or wood, among other carbonaceous natural resources. 

Activated charcoal is treated with oxygen, which gives it a much more porous structure than its brick-like counterpart. Therefore, it’s generally not toxic to humans.

In fact, activated charcoal is commonly used in medical circles to prevent toxic substances from entering the body. For example, someone who has ingested poison can be fed a mixture containing activated charcoal to sop up poison in the stomach before it has a chance to infiltrate the bloodstream. 

Activated charcoal is also key in water filtration. In particular, it’s good at attracting chlorine and other impurities that can be lethal if consumed in excess. Activated charcoal also helps water taste better.

The Pros and Cons of Charcoal in Skincare

Activated charcoal has a number of benefits for your skin, especially when combined with other actives. However, it does not suit every skin type and could be detrimental if you use it incorrectly. 

Benefits of Charcoal in Skincare

  • If you have oily or combination skin acne-prone skin, activated charcoal should work well for you. Because of activated charcoal’s porous makeup, products with this ingredient can bind to and shuttle out excess sebum and other impurities such as bacteria.
  • Activated charcoal can protect the skin from environmental factors that contribute to dull skin, according to a study published in the December 2017 edition of MPDI Cosmetics. This is great news for anyone who lives in a big city that may be rife with pollution. When combined with other absorbent ingredients (like kaolin clay), activated charcoal can draw pollutants such as metal particles, airborne chemicals, and ozone up and out of the skin. 
  • A 2018 study from the Chemical Research in Toxicology observed the efficacy of activated charcoal in cigarette filters. The result was a reduction in exposure to free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells and lead to premature ageing. Activated charcoal can potentially provide a similar level of protection for your skin against fine lines and wrinkles.

Risks of Charcoal in Skincare

  • While activated charcoal can be a blessing for oily/combination skin types, it can have the opposite effect on people with dry skin. It makes sense — activated charcoal is known as absorbent, not hydrating. However, dry skin lacks sebum. An ingredient like activated charcoal will only create a deeper imbalance.
  • If you prefer to ingest activated charcoal powder or pills to help clear your skin, be mindful of any medications you currently take. Remember that activated charcoal prevents drugs from entering the bloodstream — taking activated charcoal supplements, you could render your medications useless.
  • Activated charcoal can be found in a number of skincare products like cleansers and exfoliants. However, it’s typically used in peel-off masks (which can damage your skin) and sheet masks (which can be bad for the environment). We’ll elaborate on this in the next section.

The Downsides of Peel-Off Charcoal Masks

Within the last several years, charcoal peel-off masks have gained a false reputation for being effective because they pull out all of the “gunk,” albeit painfully. Yes, these masks can potentially remove blackheads and whiteheads, but they can also damage your skin.

Despite popular belief, pain does not always equal effectiveness when it comes to skincare. Peeling a charcoal mask off your skin can actually remove things you don’t have to or even want to, such as fine facial hair and sebaceous filaments, which are often mistaken for blackheads but are actually a collection of sebum surrounding hair follicles that help bring oil to the skin’s surface.

Using a charcoal peel-off mask, especially more than once a week, can strip your face of essential oils and lipids that help protect your skin from dehydration and pollutants. This can result in extreme dryness, redness, and irritation, as well as an increase in pimples and other blemishes.

The Downsides of Charcoal Sheet Masks

Sheet masks are simple to use. Just place one on your face, leave it on for about 30 minutes, and pat the excess essence into your skin. But what becomes of the sheet mask itself? Since it’s a one-time-use product, it gets thrown away. Unfortunately, that’s starting to negatively impact the planet.

Most sheet masks, whether they feature charcoal or another active ingredient, are typically made from synthetic materials like cotton, Tencel, and rayon. These fabrics are not biodegradable and/or environmentally sound to produce, as a 2006 study in the Clothing & Textiles Research Journal confirms. Chemicals and dyes used to create these synthetic materials can find their way into the soil or water. The inability for these sheet masks to decompose properly means landfills will only grow larger.

On top of that, sheet masks are often individually packaged. If you use a sheet mask, you’re producing waste from not only the mask itself but also the packaging, which usually isn’t recyclable.

Fortunately, you can go beyond charcoal peel-off and sheet masks and find alternatives that are good for both your skin and the planet (i.e. the mask won’t end up in your trash bin).

The Best Charcoal Masks You Can Use

 Women wearing YORA face mask

Peel-off masks can damage your skin. And sheet masks, while nowhere near as harsh, are often not made with biodegradable materials. So if you want to use a charcoal mask, we recommend the following methods.

Clay and Charcoal Masks

Oilier complexions can benefit from clay masks because they’re good at absorbing excess sebum and reducing shine. They also gently exfoliate dead skin cells. The downside is most clay masks can be too drying/ However, kaolin clay is known for its ability to absorb water, which makes it suitable for any skin type.

The YORA Clarify Face Mask contains both kaolin clay and activated charcoal to provide skin a deep cleanse while protecting it from outside pollutants. It also features bamboo powder for added exfoliation plus soothing cucumber extract to leave skin smooth and radiant. This gentle formula washes off easily with warm water. It may be used once or twice a week depending on your skin type. We recommend a conservative approach, but if you live in a heavily polluted area, experiment with more than once a week to see how it performs.

Gel and Cream Wash-Off Charcoal Masks

Similar to clay masks, gel and cream masks can be washed off with water after a short period. These typically don’t dry up as much as clay masks and provide a nice deep cleanse without pulling or tugging on the skin. 

For added benefits, look for masks that contain other actives like salicylic acid (to keep your pores as clean as possible) or vitamin C (to help brighten your complexion, heal wounds, and assist with collagen formation).

Charcoal Sleeping Masks

If you’re too tired for a proper wash-off mask, consider a sleeping mask instead. This is meant to be worn as you sleep for an intensive treatment during your skin’s highest regenerative period. Unlike typical a wash-off mask, a sleeping mask is generally lighter and easier for your skin to absorb, so you won’t have to worry about staining your bed linens. 

Apply your sleeping mask as the final step of your skincare routine. A charcoal-based sleeping mask can be beneficial in deep-cleaning your pores and removing excess sebum. Wash it off in the morning to reveal a more radiant complexion.

Clearing up Activated Charcoal Myths

Activated charcoal has a number of skin benefits. Unfortunately, the ingredient is subject to some misconceptions.

Activated Charcoal Can't Thoroughly Detox Your Skin

Because of its porous state, activated charcoal is looked upon as a detoxifying ingredient. It’s good at purifying the skin, but on the surface level. 

Furthermore, activated charcoal is sometimes incorrectly identified as a chelating agent. Chelation refers to the binding of metals or minerals to a protein as a way of eliminating toxins from the body. Activated charcoal does this internally (for example, after ingesting a poisonous substance) but does not have that same effect on skin. In skincare, the most common chelating agent is ethylene­diaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).

Also, bear in mind that your body has its own built-in detoxification system. Barring any serious medical issues, you seldom need outside help in this area.

You Can't (Safely) Make Your Own Activated Charcoal Face Masks at Home

The internet is loaded with tips on how to make activated charcoal masks at home. However, effective skincare takes much research and testing. You run the risk of damaging your skin by making DIY skincare, especially if you’ve never done it before. 

While you can potentially save money versus buying ready-made products, the cost associated with reversing damage from ill-made skincare will be extremely costly.

Using Charcoal Face Masks in Your Skincare Routine

For anyone with oily skin or residence in a highly polluted area, activated charcoal can be a welcome addition to your routine. It has the ability to absorb excess sebum and impurities while creating a barrier against environmental pollutants. 

But make sure you use this popular ingredient correctly. Opt for masks and other products that gently exfoliate and cleanse instead of pull and damage your skin. (The YORA Revitalise Face Polish combined with the Revitalise Face Mask are charcoal-free alternatives that can exfoliate and deeply hydrate your skin.)  Look to formulas that are consciously formulated with other skin-nourishing ingredients. When used properly, purifying charcoal can provide you with a smooth, radiant complexion.

Words by Antoinette Barnardo

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