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Activated Charcoal for Psoriasis: Can It Help?

Medically reviewed by Kelsey Stalvey, PharmD
Posted on May 23, 2023

If you’ve poked around stores or online in search of skin care that might help psoriasis, you’ve likely noticed a plethora of products containing activated charcoal. This ingredient, an odorless black powder, has piqued the interest of some MyPsoriasisTeam members.

“Charcoal treatment? What’s that?” One member inquired. Another said, “I bought some charcoal body wash, and I am wondering if anyone has used charcoal body wash before and if it works.”

Like other alternative therapies and natural treatments, such as aloe vera, activated charcoal won’t cure your underlying condition. However, some of these products can help with symptoms of psoriasis, especially skin plaques. Read on to learn more about what activated charcoal is made of, how it’s used, and if it may be able to help manage your psoriasis skin or scalp symptoms.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Charcoal is a natural substance that comes from carbon sources, including wood, coal, and peat. The powder becomes “activated” when it’s heated at high temperatures with a gas and develops pores, allowing it to capture chemicals.

Activated charcoal comes in two forms — oral (taken by mouth) and topical (applied to skin). In health care, oral activated charcoal is commonly given in emergency settings to treat certain types of poisonings and drug overdoses. Skin care products — shampoos, soaps, and even toothpastes — contain the topical form.

Is Activated Charcoal Helpful for Psoriasis Symptoms?

People with psoriasis may be curious about the topical form of activated charcoal and whether it can improve skin and scalp symptoms. Some members of MyPsoriasisTeam who’ve given it a try describe good results. “Dove charcoal body wash helps my scales,” one member wrote.

Another said, “When I saw my psoriasis spread to a small part of my face two months ago, I was given a face mask kit for Christmas, and I noticed when I use the charcoal mask it controls it a little, as long as I use it at least once a week.”

Responding to a question about products that could help long term, a third member replied, “A charcoal soap body bar — I’m telling you, it works. I use it every other day or longer. It doesn’t burn. It soothes your psoriasis.”

That said, no medical research has thus far looked into the benefits of using activated charcoal for symptoms of psoriasis. Although many cosmetics companies say that activated charcoal can help with skin exfoliation and removal of dead skin cells, as well as fight aging, none of these claims have been scientifically proven true. It’s important to remember that reports of activated charcoal’s benefits for psoriasis plaques or for scalp psoriasis are based entirely on individual experience.

How Is Activated Charcoal Used?

If you’re interested in trying activated charcoal, be sure to do so safely. There’s little research on the effects of topical activated charcoal on the skin, so it’s important to talk with your dermatologist first. If they approve of you trying activated charcoal products such as lotion or cleanser, start by using small amounts, and proceed with caution.

Activated Charcoal vs. Coal Tar in Shampoo

Some people are particularly interested in shampoo that contains either activated charcoal or coal tar. Many MyPsoriasisTeam members have discussed coal tar shampoos and whether they can help with symptoms such as itchiness, scales, and inflammation of the skin.

Coal tar is different from activated charcoal — it comes from coal, as the name suggests, and has a distinctive, potentially off-putting odor. Unlike activated charcoal, coal tar is known to be an effective treatment for scalp and skin plaque psoriasis. It’s also considered safe and often used as part of a treatment plan by dermatologists.

Oral Activated Charcoal

Oral activated charcoal is used in emergency rooms to treat life-threatening poisonings. Even though oral activated charcoal can be purchased without a prescription, never ingest it without first speaking to your doctor, emergency health professionals, or a U.S. poison control center (which can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222).

A recent trend involves taking oral activated charcoal to “cleanse” the body, with websites advising people to make their own activated charcoal at home. Some over-the-counter (OTC) products advertise activated charcoal as a way to “detoxify” impurities or even help with bad breath or bloating.

Keep in mind that despite this fad, there is no evidence that this product can help with such ailments, and it is never advised to consume activated charcoal you’ve made yourself. Furthermore, oral activated charcoal only reduces gut absorption of a drug overdose or poisoning and has no effect on toxins elsewhere in the body.

Additionally, you should never treat an overdose or a poisoning at home — go straight to the emergency room. In the event of an overdose, OTC activated charcoal provides a much lower dose than the amount a doctor can give, so it’s not as effective. The overdose or poisoning could become even more life-threatening if you try to self-treat it or delay proper care that could be lifesaving.

Does Activated Charcoal Have Side Effects?

The potential side effects of activated charcoal depend on whether it’s a topical or oral form. If you have psoriasis, it’s important to talk to your dermatologist before trying any new substance on your skin or scalp.

The few known side effects of the topical form may include skin discoloration (given that charcoal is black), dry skin, and irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin. An allergic reaction is always possible and can produce any of the following symptoms:

  • Redness
  • Irritation
  • Rash
  • Swelling
  • Itching

If you notice any of these symptoms, stop using the product right away. An allergic reaction can be life-threatening, especially if you have trouble breathing. If this happens, go straight to the emergency room. If you are pregnant, it is advised to not use these products because not enough information is known about how activated charcoal might affect your baby.

Oral activated charcoal — which should be taken only under a doctor’s supervision — has a range of potential side effects, including the following:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Confusion
  • Dry eyes
  • Extreme thirst
  • Difficult urination
  • Weakness or tiredness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Pain or swelling of the stomach
  • Allergic reaction

Oral activated charcoal also can affect how your body absorbs other medications. Sometimes activated charcoal can make other drugs much less effective, putting you at risk. Again, it is never advised to take oral activated charcoal unless you’re under the supervision of a doctor.

The bottom line: There is not enough research to know if activated charcoal can help with your psoriasis. If you’re interested in adding a new activated charcoal product to your skin care routine, be sure to first check with your dermatologist.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyPsoriasisTeam is the social network for people with psoriasis and their loved ones. On MyPsoriasisTeam, more than 117,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with psoriasis.

Have you tried using topical activated charcoal for your psoriasis symptoms? What type of product did you use, and what effects did it have? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on May 23, 2023
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    Kelsey Stalvey, PharmD received her Doctor of Pharmacy from Pacific University School of Pharmacy in Portland, Oregon, and went on to complete a one-year postgraduate residency at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida. Learn more about her here.
    Remi A. Kessler, M.D. is affiliated with the Medical University of South Carolina and Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about her here.

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