Can activated charcoal cure acne? A dermatologist says no — here's what to use instead

Facial mask and scrub by activated charcoal powder on wooden table

Best known for its purifying qualities, activated charcoal continues to be the spotlight ingredient in almost every range of beauty. I’m talking skin, hair and oral health products like toothpaste and mouthwash — heck I even tried activated charcoal in my ice cream. It’s everywhere! But why?

The claim is that activated charcoal works to detoxify the inside of the body. In some cases, doctors use activated charcoal to treat patients suffering from overdoses and for wound care combined with silver to fight bacteria like E. coli. But as someone who has uncontrollable oily and acne-prone skin and has come across dozens of charcoal-infused products throughout the years, I have to ask, what does it actually do for the skin?

Does it really work to absorb excess sebum and acne-causing bacteria?

While more and more brands continue to incorporate this trendy ingredient in acne-preventing products like face wipes, cleansers, toners and scrubs, one dermatologist suggests it may not work the same way for your skin than it does for the inside of your body.

“Unfortunately, although popular, activated charcoal is not helpful in curbing acne. It's mostly used in wound care products for the benefit of limiting odour and bacteria — but the bacteria it helps limit is not the same bacteria that is a factor in acne,” explains Renée A. Beach of Bay Dermatology Centre and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.

While Beach doesn’t recommend the use of activated charcoal for daily acne-prevention, she does recommend using these three underrated ingredients that do wonders for the skin.

Retinol:


“Retinol is a less-intense cousin of prescription strength retinoid. Not only does it help skin cell turnover, it also helps refine skin texture and improve fine lines. When you start it, start slow applying it perhaps three nights per week and gradually add on nights. Benefits are seen after 10 to 12 weeks,” Beach says. “Don't forget your daytime sunscreen to protect those newly surfaced skin cells.”

Pixi Retinol Tonic

PIXI Retinol Tonic


Shop it: $20, Shoppers Drug Mart


SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 Refining Night Cream

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 Refining Night Cream

Shop it: $70, SkinCeuticals


Glycolic acid:

“I think this Alpha hydroxy acid is a bit of an unsung hero, particularly in my patients with olive or brown skin tones,” Beach explains. It penetrates skin very well but is gentle enough (4 - 8 per cent) to avoid skin irritation or product-induced eczema. It is effective in smoothing and evening skin tone.”

Neostrata Acid Brightening Peel

NEOSTRATA Dual Acid Brightening Peel

Shop it: 80, Shoppers Drug Mart


The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

Shop it: $9, Hudson’s Bay


Salicylic acid:

“This beta hydroxy acid is available over the counter in one to two percent concentrations. I like it because it has a potent effect on acne without being too irritating,” says Beach. She also explains that salicylic acid “can be tolerated in winter months when some patients cannot tolerate prescription retinoids as easily and a range.”

Dermalogica AGE Bright Clearing Serum

DERMALOGICA AGE Bright Clearing Serum

Shop it: $89, Sephora


Beautycounter Countercontrol SOS Acne Spot Treatment

Beautycounter Countercontrol SOS Acne Spot Treatment

Shop it: $29, Beautycounter

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