Since around 2016, when Gwyneth Paltrow and other holistic "health as fashion " thought leaders of the West started touting charcoal lemonade and fancy Japanese burnt sticks in the bath, activate charcoal powder has been a trendy material to include in everything from toothpaste to shower poufs.
But what is it exactly that this stuff is doing, and how? Well, that's where it gets interesting! And in order to get that answer, we'll have to dive a little deeper - literally.
First, let's recap some of the ways activated charcoal (or activated carbon, as it is also known) is used and how it works. You may not know that historically, charcoal appeared as an integral factor in the advent of the Bronze Age, as it was used in the smelting process for making the metal that changed the course of history. Later it became known for a wider variety of applications: as a building material, since it would not be damaged by moisture as untreated lumber would; for filtering water, removing toxins form the body and even as a hangover cure.
Today, activated charcoal powder is also used for teeth whitening, for cleansing skin and removing impurities, in masks for air filtration, for treating symptoms of mold, and as a digestive supplement.
So, how the heck does it do all of that? Most of the applications we use charcoal for (other than, say, sketching or cooking) rely on it's properties of adsorption. This means that particles tend to adhere, or stick, to the surface of carbon. So, put a stick or two of charcoal into your old, stinky tennis shoes and, voila, a few hours later you will find that they smell much less funky than they did before. Why? Because particles causing the odor have stuck, or adsorbed, to the charcoal. Now you may wonder why you are always hearing the term "activated charcoal". The answer, and the magic of activated charcoal lies in properties that can only be appreciated by looking at the substance under a powerful microscope. There you will see how the heating and oxygenation involved in the "activation" process actually cause a multiverse of tiny holes, or pores, to appear in the surface of the carbon. This vastly expands the surface area of the carbon, allowing exponentially more particles to adsorb to the surface. How much surface area does activated charcoal have? Well, a single gram of the stuff has enough surface area to cover an entire football field.
Looking back at some of the popular applications for activated charcoal, we can now understand what it's actually doing. When used for teeth whitening, the idea is that staining particles are mopped up by the charcoal, leaving teeth cleaner and whiter. In it's role in water filtration, it's simply doing what it does best, attracting impurities, which stick to the surface of the charcoal powder in the filter, while cleaner, better tasting water passes through. Some people believe that activated charcoal powder can be ingested to clear mold from the body. What's actually happening though, is that the charcoal is adsorbing the mycotoxins produced by the mold, not the mold itself.
So there you have it, the dirt on why activated charcoal cleans so well! Tell us in the comments how YOU use it! Want more? Here are 10 activated charcoal benefits and uses.