THIS IS NOT A DRILL: Activated Charcoal Soap Healed My Adult Acne (For Now...)

But nobody (not even me) knows why.
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Alison Freer
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But nobody (not even me) knows why.

I had pretty good skin as a teenager. It's when I became what one would call an "adult" that I began to be plagued by acne. It wasn't painful, cystic acne -- more like a constant stream of smallish bumps and redness on my chin, cheeks, temples, and forehead. I don't have a great photo of it, as who is going around photographing themselves every day, documenting their acne? Maybe an acne performance artist, but you can kind of get an idea of what I was dealing with from my chin in this photo:

Alison acne

Ta-da!

I tried any product I could think of in an attempt to heal my breakouts. I dutifully used my Clarisonic twice a day, slathered on prescription lotions by the bushel, tried at least a dozen different face masks, and on and on and on. The only thing I didn't do is take antibiotics -- I've taken courses of them at least 20 times over the past 10 years, and I'm just not doing it anymore. 

Every derm I've seen winds up putting me on antibiotics out of sheer frustration. And while mino, doxy, tetra, and all the other "cycline" antibiotics really do work, the sad news is that you can't take them forever. (Unless you want to teach your liver a lesson it'll never forget.) I finally decided: If I'm meant to have acne, so be it. Like Clarissa, I figured that maybe it had been sent to teach me something, and I just put up with it as best I could.

Then I ran out of my favorite fancy-pants face cleanser -- and on a whim, started washing my mug with this activated charcoal facial soap by Destiny Boutique that I bought at the health-food store. I certainly did not expect anything magical to happen, but it did.

I just rubbed the bar directly on my face, as it has a slight grainy texture to it that felt kind of good. (Activated charcoal powder is made from coconut shells, coal, or wood products, and is readily available for use in soap-making.) I abandoned all other scrubby devices and just used the bar of soap. Three months later, I suddenly realized that I hadn't had a breakout or bump in weeks. I had changed NOTHING about my routine but the soap. For me, it's obvious: Activated charcoal soap is the magic bullet that healed my adult acne.

The only problem? I have no earthly idea why or how it's working. But that's okay -- because I don't think anyone actually understands the root cause and best treatments for adult acne. Even the fancy Beverly Hills dermatologist I see on the regular kind of shrugged and stared at me the last time I darkened his door with a broken-out face. He literally didn't know what else to tell me to try. And he's not the only one! I've seen about 15 celeb derms during my time in Los Angeles -- even Michael Jackson's famed doctor, Arnold Klein. Do you understand how long it took to get an appointment with Dr. Klein in 1998? MONTHS.

As for the soap, nobody really seems to have a clue exactly why activated charcoal works to heal acne. (It isn't even touted as being an acne treatment on the soap's own website!) There's the usual mumbo-jumbo out there about "toxins" and "drawing out impurities" -- things that literally make no sense. What kind of toxins are we talking about, exactly? It appears to be up to the the imagination of the user to invent their own toxins. 

While it's true that activated charcoal is used as a medication to reverse accidental poisoning and in certain filters (like my beloved hair-water filter!) to trap impurities, I just don't see how that translates to a successful topical usage. One website I consulted states:

"Charcoal has the ability to attract other substances to its surface and hold them there by absorption." 

Hmmmmmmm. Mind you, we are talking about activated charcoal here -- not regular old charcoal from your BBQ grill. My favorite website, WebMD.com, says

"To make activated charcoal, manufacturers heat common charcoal in the presence of a gas that causes the charcoal to develop lots of internal spaces or 'pores.' These pores help activated charcoal 'trap' chemicals." 

The entry then goes on to say that besides being used to treat poisonings, activated charcoal can also reduce intestinal gas, lower cholesterol levels, prevent hangovers, and treat bile flow problems (like cholestasis) during pregnancy. However, WebMD makes no mention of using it for skin irritations like acne. 

In addition to the activated charcoal, this soap contains peppermint oil, tea tree oil, shea butter, and argan oil. I keep the bar in a dish on my counter so it stays as dry as possible, and I got about two month's use out of one bar. (It's also cruelty-free, if you're concerned about that sort of thing.) 

My best guess as to why this particular soap worked to heal my adult acne is that the natural grit provides exactly the right amount of exfoliation for my skin, the argan oil and shea butter keeps the soap from being too drying, the charcoal is somehow soothing to my skin's natural PH level, and the tea tree oil component is the perfect amount to heal my spots without burning and inflaming them more.

alison clear skin

Hashtag no makeup. (Except a little lippy.)

Destiny Boutique also makes a liquid charcoal facewash, but the ingredients are not identical to the bar version, so I am loathe to try it. Again: I don't know why this soap worked to heal my adult acne, I don't know how it worked to heal my adult acne, and I don't know if it will work for your adult acne. All I know is that I seem to have found salvation in a simple bar of soap -- at least for now.

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison