Charcoal-infused scrubs, cleansers, sponges, pore strips are everywhere. But what is charcoal? Charcoal is an active powder that is a byproduct of carbon-containing materials. It’s a fine, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic ingredient. It has pores, and it is negatively charged, which helps attract toxins. In fact, that’s why charcoal is sometimes used in medical settings for pumping the stomach after someone has ingested medications or poisons.
Though charcoal first became popular in skincare products, it’s now showing up in hair care and scalp care products. “On the scalp, in particular, we have many, more pores than on other parts of our body—hundreds of thousands to millions total—with a more active sebaceous system than other areas, so we can be susceptible to effects of everything sticking to the hair and entering through our scalp from smoke and pollutants to chemicals from products or processing, bacteria, dirt, and sludge, or toxins,” Craig Ziering, board-certified hair transplant surgeon and restoration expert. Enter charcoal: the ingredient can act as a deep cleanser for our scalps.
Meet the Expert
Benefits for Hair
- Deep Cleansing: Charcoal often shows up in "detoxifying" products or products meant to allow the hair a reset moment. It’s useful for oily, grease-prone hair and hair that's laden with product buildup because it helps “draw oils and trapped dead skin cells away from the scalp,” says New York-based board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach. “It will also absorb excess sebum to help balance the scalp and keep the hair root and shaft from presenting as oily or appearing heavy and flat. It will also relieve build-up at the base of hair and scalp from excess product,” Ziering explains. Unlike, say, a salt-scrub for the scalp, charcoal does not exfoliate in a traditional sense. Rather, Ziering explains, “it acts like a magnet attracting certain elements to be lifted and eliminated from the scalp, root, and hair shaft.”
- Anti-Itch/Healing: Charcoal can also relieve painful or unpleasant scalp conditions. “It can remedy itching scalp and prove to be helpful with patient populations who have acne or a super oily case of seborrheic dermatitis,” Ziering says.
- Volumizing: Charcoal can also be used as a volumizer too! “Charcoal can help with thin, flat hair or oily hair and scalp. It will stack the hair and help it appear thicker and have more volume,” Ziering explains.
Who Should and Should Not Use It
Charcoal is best for those struggling with balancing their scalps or suffer from scalp breakouts, dandruff, or excessive oil. “Most charcoal shampoos or treatments can be used on any hair type without overly drying the scalp or strands, without disrupting the variations in texture, pattern or cuticle of natural African American, or impacting color-treated hair.
Charcoal-infused products, Rabach notes, can also provide a natural alternative to medicated shampoos. All that said, it is still best to check a product label or inquire with the brand regarding whether or not a product is safe to use on color-treated hair.
How to Use Charcoal in Your Haircare Routine
Generally speaking, charcoal-infused products fall into the treatment category. They do not need to be used daily—nor should they be. “Depending on your hair and scalp condition, charcoal can be used every seven to ten days in a scrub or as a clarifying shampoo,” Ziering says, “In more extreme circumstances,” he adds, “it will sometimes be used weekly or twice weekly for specific treatment or extreme circumstances where there is significant product buildup, excessive sweat (sometimes seen in athletes), or more extreme environmental pollutants.”
You can use charcoal-infused products or an activated charcoal powder to make your own at-home treatments. “It can also be used as a DIY hair scrub by mixing two tablespoons of activated charcoal powder with a base like coconut oil," Ziering says, explaining that it should then be massaged on the scalp, left to sit for about 20 minutes, and then rinsed out. For a faster alternative, he recommends adding some activated charcoal powder to a gentle shampoo and shaking to mix before use.
What to Look For in a Product
There are various forms of charcoal, but our experts favor activated charcoal and binchotan charcoal. “Activated charcoal is what you want to use. Its structure is like a sponge; it has a very bumpy jagged surface, so toxins stick to before being washed away,” Rabach says, noting that anyone who also uses a scalp medication should use activated charcoal as it is “inert, so there are not reports of allergic reactions.” This helps prevent charcoal from interfering with the absorption of the medication.
Binchotan charcoal is another top pick. “Binchotan charcoal is able to attract and draw impurities from the scalp, providing the optimal foundation for scalp health. Then, the follicles are free to focus on the hair cycle with more clean, clear, and unobstructed follicles in the release and growth phases,” Ziering explains. (Basically, by purifying the scalp, hair grows more easily).
The Best Products With Charcoal
This scalp serum (part of a four-piece collection made with binchotan charcoal) can be used on post-shower hair or as an overnight treatment. The binchotan charcoal works to detoxify the scalp and draw out impurities that can clog the hair follicle or cause buildup on the scalp. A blend of peppermint, spearmint, and tea tree oil reduces itchiness, irritation, and flakiness with the added benefit of a nice cooling sensation, and biotin supports hair growth.
Charcoal devotees can incorporate binchotan charcoal into their hair care routines at every step, thanks to this Pantene collection which includes a pre-wash and shampoo too. This lightweight conditioner helps nourish without weighing hair down.
This color-safe, keratin treatment-safe “polishing wash” is all about boosting hair’s shine. Activated charcoal helps buff away impurities caused by pollution, hard water, and product buildup, all of which can contribute to dull-looking hair.
This once-a-week deep cleanse features a superpowered trifecta of activated charcoal, witch hazel, and BHA salicylic acid, which work together to deep clean, absorb excess oil, sebum, and other impurities.
Cool girl hair brand IGK has three dry shampoo varieties, and this one is essentially the “extra strength” one. Charcoal powder lifts dirt and buildup, and white tea powder soothes the scalp.
Charcoal has even made its way into heat styling tools—like this one-step blowout brush that can be used directly on the hair for an easy blow-dry or to refresh second-day hair, which will benefit from the charcoal’s absorbent properties.
This clarifying shampoo uses charcoal and Virtue’s Alpha Keratin 60ku ingredient, which strengthens hair and repairs damage. The result is hair that feels extra clean and healthy.
This pre-shampoo treatment works to deep cleanse (with charcoal!) revitalize, and stimulate the scalp. Hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, and abyssine act as anti-agers for the hair.