Ask Curology: do charcoal masks work?

The real benefits of charcoal, according to medicine.

Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP
Nov 15, 2019 · 3 min read

Black face mask on woman closeup
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. This week, we dig into the science behind charcoal masks.

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Dear Curology,

I’m acne-prone and super oily, and I’ve heard that activated charcoal is the most effective treatment due to the way it detoxifies the skin. How do charcoal masks work, and which one do you think is best for treating acne?


Breakout-broiling Questioner

Dear BBQ,

Before I answer your question, let’s get the facts straight. Yes, charcoal can be “detoxifying,” and activated charcoal does have the ability to absorb toxins, making it useful for treating poisonings and overdoses. But breakouts aren’t toxic (unless you’re into Victorian beauty hacks), and there’s not currently any medical evidence to support the claim that charcoal can actually absorb dirt and oil from the skin’s surface. If someone told you about charcoal mask benefits, you might want to ask to see their sources!

That’s not to say charcoal is bad to use, though, and especially since you say you’re “super oily,” you might like the sensation you get from using a charcoal mask as it dries. Ironically, though, the charcoal in these masks doesn’t magically pull gunk out of your pores. In fact, if they contain pore-clogging ingredients, a charcoal face mask could make your breakouts even worse.

If you look at the ingredients of most charcoal facial masks, you’ll usually find that the primary ingredient is not charcoal, but clay. There are a number of clay types available — some named for the place of origin and others named for the types of predominant mineral in the product — but kaolin and bentonite are the most common. Kaolin and bentonite draw water and oil out from the skin, and the drying of clay-based masks physically exfoliates by helping to shed dead skin cells.

Three favorite clay masks from around the Curology office:

To answer your question about charcoal products: you might like the Origins Active Charcoal Mask to Clear Pores, which contains charcoal, as well as both kaolin and bentonite clays. And if a drying mask isn’t your thing, Julep Charcoal Konjac Sponge is another gentle way to physically exfoliate the skin.

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In terms of acne treatments: don’t expect charcoal to make a big difference. There’s a whole lot of other things you can try that have been medically proven to be effective. And if over-the-counter products are failing you, Curology can connect you with a dermatology provider to help your skin thrive. As always, you can sign up for a free trial and get your complete skincare routine — including a prescription acne treatment customized for you — for $4.95 to cover the cost of shipping and handling.


Allison Buckley, NP

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP

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