Skin care routines are by no means a new practice. Ancient Egyptians created moisturizing masks out of clay and oil, ground them into a paste, and spread it across their cheeks to replenish their skin. The Greeks used honey and milk baths to exfoliate. Africans used Rooibos tea and lavender oil for a flawless and healthy complexion. Whether it was aloe vera, rosemary, or seeds, skin care has been a focus for society in nausea and there have always been tricks to feel beautiful. The first person to cut a cucumber and put it on her eyelids was probably deemed a sorceress for her mysterious lack of bagged eyes.
And then she became the most popular woman in her row of huts.
Modern skin care has been capitalized by major companies, mom and pop shops, and even farmers markets. This meant that every budget has an entrance point to moisturizing and pore cleansing. Add to this Pinterest, an internet connection, a jar of honey, and an old lemon plus the baking soda, left over from that one time they thought a Pinterest recipe could teach them how to bake bread, and make a clarifying face make in the comfort of their own home.
I’ve bought face masks, hair masks, teeth whitening gel, and pore removing gimmicks off Instagram, in stores, and only through my own searching. Matcha masks, sea foam, salt water, hemp, collagen. I’ve bought into every sort of skin care trend aside from placenta for what I hope are obvious reasons. And when I say bought, I mean I’ve literally paid someone to burn the dead skin off my face with acid and inject botulism into my forehead to hide the side effects of happiness..
However, I only pay for treatments I can’t physically conduct myself. I don’t pay for foot rubs because I fundamentally hate my feet being touched and, also, because I can use a metal half ball I use for DIY bath bombs to work out the cramps in my arches.
So when the activated charcoal craze hit the market, I didn’t want to pay because I already had that ingredient at home in the form of Kingsford campfire briquettes.
Like any good DIY’er, I did minimal research on first attempt, and made the assumption that I could utilize a recipe and substitute the charcoal I already had. So, I skimmed an article or two, decided on a peel off mask, and went about the process of my evening self care.
The recipe called for activated charcoal, gelatin, coconut oil, bentonite clay, and water. I gathered the gelatin and coconut oil, a dish, a mortar and pestle, and retried charcoal from a bag in my garage.
A well versed skin care guru would know that activated charcoal and campfire briquettes are not interchangeable. These same experts would have advised me of the terrible consequences of this exchange.
The ingredients in activated charcoal are:
- Bone char
- coconut shells
- petroleum cake
- or other natural sources of carbon heated to very high temperatures to leave the burned organic material in a powder form.
Conversely, the ingredients in campfire charcoal briquettes (to give some insight the maker of Kingsford brand I’d used is owned by the Clorox Company, so yeah, get ready for this):
- Wood charcoal
- Anthracite coal
- Mineral charcoal
- Sodium Nitrate
- Aliphatic petroleum solvent
If it was not already obvious, these are very different types of charcoal. One is highly effective for detoxing skin while the other is highly effective at cooking meat.
I used a mortar and pestle to grind down the BBQ briquettes and after much work was left with a “fine” powder, by which I mean I grew frustrated with the lumps and conceded that everything was fine enough.
The recipe called for equal parts charcoal, gelatin, and clay but lacking the bentonite clay ingredients, I double the charcoal and gelatin quota and called it good. I turned on the kettle and heated water. All the reviews said warm water would make it easier to mix with the gelatin. When the kettle warmed to its lowest setting, 175 Fahrenheit, I poured a few tablespoons into the gelatin until it was a well incorporated, thin mixture, then added the charcoal. Steam rose and the kitchen smelled like lighter fluid. I added a few drops of peppermint essential oil to combat this smell and soon found the bottle empty and no change to the predominant aroma.
I tossed a few ice cubes into a wine glass, added some sauvignon blanc, and prepared myself to pamper.
Before it could thicken, I used a paint brush, stood in front of a mirror, and watched the black slop cover my face. Let me tell it, it was hot. As my dad always says, “don’t let the steam fool you!” I told myself the heat was just opening up my pores more. I kept applying until my entire face was covered. It was about this time that my eyes started to register the peppermint and release tears onto the mask, hindering the drying process, and the crying and tingling turned to burning. At first, I assumed I was just irritated over the crackly texture of the mask atop my skin and the peppermint stinging but quickly realized the emotions were panic and pain.
The mask was largely dried by the time I gave in and decided to remove it. If I washed it off, it would spread and re-hydrate, furthering the pain and mess. So I chugged the iced wine like the classy woman I am and I did the logical American Psycho version of face mask removal. Removing a peel mask is always painful. Imagine ripping a band-aid that has been glued in place but across the entire face. Every hair or bit of loose skin was apt to add pain to the equation. The chin and nose were acclimated to this treatment but the cheeks and jawline brought sensitivity with every crackling pull. This was in the best case scenario.
Worst case scenario, this pain is coupled by an agonizing chemical burn melting away instead of cleansing.
Full disclosure, if it had actually solved my pore problems, I might have replicated this process because I was raised in the “pain is beauty” culture, but when the black goo was removed, I was left with a lady bugs complexion of bright red skin and giant black pores. Despite the pain and effort, my pores retained the charcoal and I had to scrub my sensitive skin until it was cleaned.
Needless to say, I read the recipe a little less liberally, bought real activated charcoal, and tossed the briquettes back in the camping gear.
I can’t go to a tailgate or see a camp out without tingling at the thought that I’d not only took a highly flammable material, ground it into a powder, then applied it to my face like I was some sort of X-Men origin story. If this story says nothing else, it was clear that my people are not the DIY facial product type, but instead, I should save myself for stereotypical carpentry projects and Home Depot instead of home remedies and Sephora.
Find your people and follow the recipe.