Do Charcoal Face Masks Work and Are They Safe?

Charcoal masks may help remove impurities and toxins from your skin; however, there are safety concerns to note.

From face masks to cleansers, toothpaste, and soap, activated charcoal is a popular ingredient in many beauty products you'll see on a walk through the beauty aisle at your local drugstore.

Unlike other masks that simply wash or peel off without much fuss, some charcoal-based masks really cling to the skin, pulling out blackheads, dead skin, hair, and other pore-clogging culprits.

Do these masks actually unclog pores, and even more importantly, are they safe? We dug into the research as well as reached out to two dermatologists to get their expert opinions on charcoal face masks.

The Science Behind Activated Charcoal

Charcoal has been used medicinally for centuries but just recently entered the cosmetic industry as the key to perfect skin. Since about 2014, many skincare products containing activated charcoal have been available to consumers. These products claim to leave the consumer with a smoother, clearer complexion. 

Activated charcoal is carbon, like coal, but produced from naturally carbon-rich materials such as bamboo, coconut, or wood that have been heated and turned into a powder. This process creates micropores in the carbon, increasing its surface area and ability to trap toxins and chemicals.

This makes activated charcoal ideal for drawing out bacteria and impurities from the skin, clearing away any clogged pores, and detoxifying the skin surface when rinsed or peeled away.

Do Charcoal Face Masks Work?

Because of activated charcoal’s ability to absorb bacteria and toxins from the skin, some experts believe that a charcoal face mask can help draw impurities from the skin.

You can expect the masks to help unclog pores and absorb environmental pollutants, oil, and dirt from the skin, Debra Jaliman, MD, a dermatologist in New York City, told Health. Charcoal is especially good for people with acne and blackheads as it can help reduce excess oil, said Dr. Jaliman.

But despite the popularity of incorporating activated charcoal in skincare products, there is a lack of evidence to support its exfoliative or anti-aging abilities.

Safety Concerns and Charcoal Masks

Even though charcoal is a natural compound, it is still a chemical compound and may result in adverse reactions if it's not used in moderation. Some of the safety concerns of using charcoal masks include:

  • Charcoal peel-off masks can sometimes cause excessive skin peeling, particularly in people with sensitive skin or certain skin conditions. This can be very painful or can cause serious and permanent skin damage like scarring and infection.
  • Some charcoal-containing beauty products are not under the jurisdiction of the FDA and can cause allergies and irritation. There have also been cases of chemical burns from some of these products.

Best Practices for Using Charcoal Masks

Like any beauty product, charcoal face masks can contain chemicals that can cause allergies or irritation. Melissa Piliang, MD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic told Health that you should be diligent about checking for ingredients that don't work well with your skin. Also, be wary of buying through third-party websites, like Facebook, said Dr. Piliang.

After you peel off the mask, Dr. Piliang recommended washing with a gentle cleanser to remove any remaining mask and then applying a soothing non-comedogenic moisturizer to protect the skin.

If you're looking for less ouch with your blackhead removal, Dr. Piliang suggested chemical exfoliators like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide. They can all help loosen blackheads a little more gently.

There are a few ways to make the peel-off process less painful. They include methods like the following:

  • Washing your face beforehand helps to pre-exfoliate the skin, and removing hair also makes mask removal more manageable, said Dr. Jaliman.
  • Both Dr. Jaliman and Dr. Piliang suggested applying the mask to only your T-zone or areas that have blackheads. The oilier skin in the center of the face may have a bit more protection from irritation, said Dr. Piliang.
  • Dr. Jaliman advised not putting it on your entire face, especially if you have combination skin, which could be even more irritated by it.

A Quick Review

Charcoal face masks and other skin care products containing activated charcoal have become very popular in the past few years. Activated charcoal has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. But its ability to absorb bacteria and toxins from the skin has made it an attractive ingredient in face masks.

While more research is needed to determine the efficacy of such masks, there are safety concerns to keep in mind if you choose to use charcoal face masks. These masks can lead to allergic reactions, peeling of the skin, or skin irritation.

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  1. Nelson Sanchez, Rachel Fayne, Brandon Burroway, Charcoal: An ancient material with a new face, Clinics in Dermatology, Volume 38, Issue 2, 2020, Pages 262-264, ISSN 0738-081X. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2019.07.025

  2. Sajjad M, Sarwar R, Ali T, Khan L, Mahmood SU. Cosmetic uses of activated charcoalInternational Journal Of Community Medicine And Public Health. 2021;8(9):4572-4574. doi:10.18203/2394-6040.ijcmph20213569

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