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How charcoal escaped the grill and ended up in your toothpaste and your face cream

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Sometimes you don’t notice a new fad until you bump into it. That’s what happened to me, literally, when my shopping cart sideswiped a display of toothbrushes with black bristles. I took a closer look at the Oral-B toothbrush and discovered it was infused with charcoal. And there was some Crest black and white striped charcoal toothpaste to go with it.

As I trudged through the store’s toiletry aisles wondering why anyone would put something that looked like it had just cleaned a fireplace into their mouth, I noticed almost every shelf had a product containing charcoal. Soap, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, masks, Epsom salts. Charcoal had become the “it” ingredient.

This isn’t the stuff of backyard barbecues, I learned, though it starts out that way. Charcoal is created by super-heating carbon-rich materials such as wood, coconut shells, bamboo and olive pits. The process leaves behind a concentrated black substance mostly made of carbon that can be used as fuel.

To give charcoal superpowers, you “activate” it, typically steaming it at high temperatures. That opens up the carbon structure and eliminates substances harmful to humans. What remains is exceptionally porous, riddled with tunnels and nooks that act like magnets to grab dirt, oil and toxins. One tablespoon of activated charcoal powder is estimated to have a larger surface area than a football field.

Charcoal works so well that emergency room physicians have used it for decades to counter the ingestion of poisons. Because charcoal and water don’t mix, and charcoal isn’t absorbed by the body, unwanted substances bind to charcoal (the scientific term is “adsorption”) and it passes safely through your gut. You may have also seen charcoal in air and water filters. Not only does it capture chemicals and dirt, but it absorbs odors. These uses for charcoal are well-established.

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Activated charcoal’s binding ability is the feature that has made it the darling of the health and beauty industry, which is banking on the fact that if charcoal binds to impurifications in air or water, it will do the same on our bodies. But scientific proof is hard to come by.

The greatest saturation of charcoal-based products is in skin care. Industry leader Bioré tells users to “go back to black” with its charcoal acne scrub, detox mask and charcoal cleansing micellar water. Proactiv sells a face mask formulated with activated bamboo charcoal and a charcoal-infused rotating cleansing brush.

Yes To claims to be the first to launch charcoal in new forms such as facial wipes (the wipe is black) and masks. Chief executive Ingrid Jackel emailed me, “Charcoal is definitely the hottest ingredient in skin care today because it works. It helps remove nasties from your skin, naturally, which is highly desired in beauty products today, particularly among millennials. It helps balance oily skin, fight blackheads, make pores appear smaller, soothe skin irritations and fight blemishes, leaving skin clear, fresher and healthier-looking. Who doesn’t want that?”

But will you get that? Is charcoal truly effective or does it just look cool on your vanity? Megan Rogge, a dermatologist at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center, says that while she understands charcoal’s appeal in a culture obsessed with detoxifying and cleansing, “there have been no controlled studies to say charcoal gives you a clean like no other or produces any significant change in skin.”

Rogge says activated charcoal is safe and does not irritate the skin. But she doesn’t see it doing a better job than traditional soap. “There are obvious benefits to washing with soap, but no need to spend more money on one with charcoal. Still, if it makes you wash or more inclined to take care of your skin because black or gray soap excites you, go for it.”

In the past year, major manufacturers have introduced shampoos, soaps, body washes and deodorants with activated charcoal, for men and women.

Rachel Zipperian is a senior scientist at Herbal Essences, part of Procter & Gamble, which is one of the companies that has developed charcoal hair products — Black Charcoal Shampoo (with visible black flecks) and White Charcoal (from Japanese oak trees) Conditioner. “Charcoal’s use in skin care caught our eye a few years ago and convinced us it should come to hair care. It’s like an oil magnet and floats in water, so rinses away any residue,” she says. “The trick was to create a product with enough charcoal to work and was still visually appealing.”

But “has anyone examined the charcoal after it has done its ‘job’ to see if it really adsorbed these things we want it to?” Rogge says about charcoal shampoo. “That is the million-dollar question!”

While Zipperian concedes Herbal Essences hasn’t done such an analysis, she says, “The charcoal is just one of the ingredients in the formula that helps detox oil from hair. We made sure the entire product works instead of single ingredients.”

Back to that attention-grabbing Oral-B black-bristle toothbrush. Colgate makes one, too. Other companies have joined Crest in offering charcoal toothpaste, and in there’s even charcoal-infused dental floss.

Opinions on the efficacy of charcoal toothpaste are split. Some dentists swear by it, others abhor it. Benjamin Schwartz, an associate professor at Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College tells me, “In general charcoal toothpaste to whiten teeth is okay in moderation, but not everyday use.”

He says, “Charcoal is abrasive, and while charcoal toothpaste may remove some surface stains, it could also damage your teeth by scrubbing off that top layer of enamel, or cause painful tooth sensitivity.”

Relative dentin abrasivity, or RDA, is a guide to measuring abrasiveness in toothpaste. The American Dental Association recommends a score of 250 or below. For toothpaste specifically designed to whiten teeth, Schwartz favors a range of 60 to 90 RDA. If you want to try charcoal toothpaste for whitening, Schwartz recommends you do your homework. Try to determine its RDA and check if it contains fluoride (many do not). Then, alternate it with your regular brand.

As with skin care, no studies show that using charcoal products for oral health does any good. The only known review, from 2017 in the Journal of the American Dental Association, concludes there is insufficient clinical and laboratory data to support the effectiveness of charcoal in oral care products.

The paucity of scientific backing for charcoal’s claimed health benefits does not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm for it in the marketplace. Activated charcoal is being added to foods and beverages such as ice cream and coffee to make them look chic. It’s being wrongly touted as a way to cure hangovers, aid digestion and detox the body. It’s even being added to mattresses: Signature Sleep has unveiled two new models — the Flex and Reset — with a charcoal and gel-infused layer that purportedly will absorb excess moisture and help regulate body temperature. Activated charcoal may be the new black, but if you look closer, you’ll find plenty of gray.

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