Well, Actually is a weekly column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. Each week, she’ll test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
When I saw two burnt sticks available for sale from Goop, I scoffed. Sixteen dollars! These sticks seemed to be the height of ridiculousness in the charcoal trend. Charcoal masks, charcoal supplements, charcoal toothpaste, charcoal food—and now, charcoal sticks.
In principle, charcoal is not actually bullshit. It’s the plant matter that remains when everything wet and fibrous has dried up and burnt out, leaving behind a porous and mostly empty carbon ghost structure. This skeleton has a “tremendous surface area,” according to the medical literature: The porous material contains lots of little docking spots for molecules, sort of like a sponge. This setup is so good at absorbing bad stuff that in the early 1800s, a French chemist and a French pharmacologist swallowed lethal doses of arsenic and strychnine (respectively) and then followed that with activated charcoal (“activated” means it’s been processed at high temperatures to be extra spongelike); the charcoal soaked up the bad chemicals, which then passed through their systems; and both men lived to tell the tale. Thus, charcoal became a routine implement of poison control, even hailed as a universal antidote. Some argue that’s too extreme a label, as charcoal needs to be administered shortly following ingestion of a poison to do much good. But still, charcoal is an effective tool—for specific circumstances.
In the modern wellness industry, which is built in large part on the idea that we need to rid our bodies of mysterious toxic stuff, it has become a wildly common ingredient based on its removal properties. If you’re the type of person who has a stash of self-care products, chances are you have something containing activated charcoal in there.
Most of the time, it doesn’t do much of anything. While charcoal face masks could theoretically absorb oil, there’s “no scientific evidence that it actually works to purify the skin,” dermatologist Yunyoung Claire Chang told the Outline in an article from Angela Lashbrook debunking activated charcoal’s station in the wellness industry. Lashbrook found charcoal lacking in other arenas too; in toothpaste and whiteners, it can even scrape off enamel and damage your teeth. In food, it is at best not going to hurt you, but it may prevent you from getting some of the nutrients in whatever you were eating it with by absorbing those nutrients itself.
The Goop sticks—actually made by a small distributor of Japanese goods, Morihata—aren’t for scrubbing teeth or eating or otherwise cleansing your body. They’re for purifying water, which, startlingly, is one of the handful of things that charcoal can do. The concept of charcoal as water filter is, like charcoal itself, hardly proprietary. Morihata marketing director Sam Gean happily tells me that charcoal is also how Brita filters work: The design uses gravity to draw water through a plastic container full of charcoal, which successfully removes contaminants like copper and chlorine, as an experiment conducted by a chemist and some skeptical journalists found. Charcoal filters are used on a large scale in wastewater treatment too, which makes sense: It’s genuinely good at sucking up poison, whether in stomachs or communal water systems. (A related charcoal trick: It can remove smells from your fridge.)
The sticks have sold out of Goop, so I ordered the same ones from Free People, which sells a variety of Morihata goods, including charcoal towels and charcoal toothbrushes. With shipping, it came to almost $20. They come in a white paper bag, with instructions to rinse the charcoal sticks (I actually got three for my money, instead of two!), boil them in tap water for 10 minutes, and then place them in a container of water. I do this and then, as instructed, let them sit for several hours.
Price-wise, these sticks are objectively worse than Brita filters, which sell for about $5 a pop (the container can cost between $20 and $30, depending on the size). Convenience-wise, the Brita filters are also better; they do not require boiling every so often, nor do you have to wait several hours for the charcoal to work its magic. I’m also skeptical that sticks soaking in water could be as successful at removing contaminants as a filter that all water is forced to pass through. Gean tells me that the charcoal sticks are “not proven to be more or less effective than other charcoal on the market.” He also explains that the charcoal is typically used in modern Japan not for water purification, but for grilling. He tells me that the sticks are well-suited to high-end hotels because, lacking any kind of plastic, they connote greenness.
My tap water doesn’t pose any sort of health threat already, so the sticks’ effectiveness doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how it tastes. I taste test my charcoal stick water. It does not taste remarkably different from tap water. Maybe a little less metallic? I don’t know. I offer a glass to a guest; he says he cannot articulate a difference—until I tell him that it was charcoal water. Then he concludes that maybe it was a little … chalky?
In fairness, New York has pretty good water. I polled my fellow New York Slatesters who use Britas, and they all said that they can’t tell a difference between filtered water and tap, but they nonetheless keep using their Britas. “I think it’s a placebo thing for me,” one said. While the sticks are advertised to remove “toxins,” their actual use is, at best, to make safe drinking water a little more palatable, rather than to remove anything truly dangerous. If it’s the apocalypse and these sticks are your only recourse, I guess, try it? But remember that charcoal can’t remove all bad stuff, like harmful bacteria. Whether it’s a placebo effect, actual filtering, or a little bit of both, a lot of people who buy these sticks note that they really like them, according to the reviews. Reviewers are also frequently unable to articulate exactly what the change in water taste is. “I am not completely sure that this is purifying the water further, but I definitely can taste the improvement of taste,” writes one person who gave the sticks five stars. In this way, the sticks are a perfect mascot for the charcoal trend: rooted in some truth, but primarily for show. I kept them in a pitcher on my kitchen counter for a while; I imagine in a minimalist space, with the right container, they’d look quite pretty. But in my small, cluttered kitchen, they looked less “eco chic” and more “unnecessary clutter.”
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