Charcoal. According to a quick scour of the internet it has many uses, only some of them made up. From its classic use as an art tool to “using clumps of it as eyes for scarecrows”, it can be difficult to tell fact apart from fiction. Throw into the mix the word “activated” and suddenly there’s a whole world of confusion. But what is activated charcoal and, more importantly, does it actually do anything?

First things first

Charcoal has been around for as long as fire has, with the earliest signs of its use stretching back to palaeolithic cave paintings of Bison and the like. Not only were these paintings really quite aesthetic, they were also the first indication of what a prehistoric life looked like. Another part of prehistoric life was cooking, and it was its use in this regard in which it made its name.

At its core, charcoal is basically what you get when you heat things up in the absence of air. Without triggering flashbacks to the fire triangle, it means that materials such as wood end up in a semi-burnt state, with water and other chemicals evaporating from it as it chars. This makes it great for creating instant, super-hot fires when needed (such as a prehistoric barbeque) but also gives it some rather different and bizarre properties, which we’ll come to in a bit.

A bit

If you look at charcoal under a microscope you’ll find it has millions of tiny pores peppering it, kind of like a swiss cheese, but even holier. Alongside its chemical makeup, this makes it great at absorbing a whole array of chemicals. Think of it like a molecular sponge of sorts, soaking up bad smells from the air, impurities from water and even certain toxins linked to indigestion.

Okay, but what does ‘activated’ mean?

This is charcoal that’s been specially treated with oxygen. What does that mean exactly? Well, it’s a clever bit of science that means that the pores that are formed within it are much, much smaller than normal. This, in turn, results in more actual charcoal being able to interact with surrounding substances - increasing its absorptive powers. In other words, it’s still charcoal. But supercharged.

What is it good for?

Activated charcoal still maintains the basic properties of regular charcoal, yet it’s been particularly embraced for use in a whole range of cosmetics, largely due to its ability to soak up dirt and toxins. Be it removing stains from teeth or oil from hair, it’s generally remarkably effective. As a note, it can become saturated over time, just like a normal sponge. This means that things such as air and water filters need replacing after a while.

One area where it’s remarkably effective is in face masks, where activated charcoal binds strongly to the dirt found within unsightly pores. Of course anyone who’s fallen down a 5am youtube rabbit hole will be aware of the hilarity (read: danger) that a slightly sketchy ‘peel off’ charcoal mask can result in - the result of some DIY “experts” recommending mixing charcoal with PVA glue for that ultimate cleanse. Needless to say don’t do that. Or at least film it if you do.

At UpCircle we don’t use PVA glue in any of our products, or any artificial substances for that matter. However, we do post blogs and send newsletters sharing our favourite DIY recipes - so always keep an eye out for those!