Charcoal strictly defined is “dark grey residue consisting of impure carbon obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances.” That and it looks like coal. So yes, perhaps when one is thinking about eco-friendly things on this Earth, charcoal probably doesn’t leap to the forefront of our brains. Dolphins playing with dogs, maybe. But what falls out of our camp fires looking like it’s from a coal mine? Not so much.
Nonetheless, charcoal seems to be the ingredient du jour. As one anonymous ecofashionista shares, “I see charcoal in candles, foot pads, soaps and scrubs, and always called eco. But isn’t charcoal – coal? More to the point, how the heck can charcoal be eco-friendly and safe?”
We went straight to a soap maker to get answers. Tracy Perkins is the founder and soap artisan of Strawberry Hedgehog, offering up vegan, green bath and body products. Her soaps are hand crafted from natural plant-based ingredients. Perkins “never uses artificial fragrances, dyes or preservatives – only 100 percent essential oils, food grade natural extracts, pure minerals and whole herbs or spices for naturally beautiful fragrance, color, and texture.” But as it turns out, she uses bamboo in her detox soap.
Here’s how this is possible. As Tracy tells it, “Charcoal is not necessarily eco, but it is naturally detoxifying. In order to create charcoal, you have to char some sort of wood material which in itself releases CO2 while using the wood as a fuel. It can be more eco-friendly if you use a more sustainable wood source, like bamboo, which re-grows rapidly. Also, opting for organic bamboo eliminates the impact of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and so on.”
But is it truly eco? As Tracy shares, “Charcoal is traditionally used internally and topically to draw out toxins. I don’t necessarily think it is eco, but I do think it counters the poisons we ingest, slather on, and breathe every day.”
Skin Deep, the cosmetic database of the Environmental Working Group, gives activated charcoal a zero, the lowest hazard rating possible. This means that as far as they can tell, there is no link to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, or allergies. There are some data gaps in their information, but this still does not nudge its ranking.
So charcoal as an external product – not so bad. But some people take it internally. As this one supplement claims, “activated charcoal (also known as carbon) neutralizes every toxin, including heavy metal toxins.” I asked Mary Vance, holistic nutritionist, what she thought about charcoal as a supplement. According to Mary, “activated charcoal has a pretty strong action in the body: it works as a magnet to pull anything that’s sitting in the gut out before it is absorbed in the bloodstream.”
Charcoal is recommended by some medical doctors in case of poisoning, and Mary agrees. According to Mary, “It is good to have around a house with children in the case of accidental poisoning.” But as a supplement? “As for use in detox products, I don’t really recommend it unless you are under the supervision of a practitioner. There are other, better products to use to help the body detox – such as extra fiber to bind to toxins.”