Difference Between Charcoal And Activated Charcoal

Charcoal and activated charcoal are substances often used interchangeably, though they differ significantly in composition and usage. Traditional charcoal is created by burning wood or fossil fuels at high temperatures and trapping the resulting smoke in a closed container; this forms a black, soft material known as char. On the other hand, activated charcoal is created by heating char to very high temperatures in the presence of an activating agent such as steam, ozone, or carbon dioxide. This process creates a highly porous material with an increased adsorption surface area, making it helpful in trapping specific molecules.

What Is Charcoal?

Charcoal is a fuel from the incomplete burning of wood, peat, or other materials. It has been used for centuries as a source of heat and light. Charcoal produces inconsistent temperatures and can be challenging to control.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal is a specially treated carbon product processed to make it more porous and absorbent. It is used in air, water, and soil filtration systems and medical treatments like detoxification or poison removal, and activated charcoal works by trapping toxins and chemicals in its tiny pores before they can be absorbed into the body.

Difference Between Charcoal And Activated Charcoal

  • Nature: Charcoal is made from burning organic materials like wood or plant matter, while activated charcoal is made from heating the charcoal in the presence of a gas.
  • Process: Charcoal is made from burning natural materials, such as wood or coconut shells, at high temperatures with little oxygen. This process creates a black powder known as charcoal. Activated charcoal, on the other hand, goes through an additional processing step. It is heated to very high temperatures; steam or chemical activation increases the charcoal’s porosity, giving it even more surface area.
  • Porosity: Activated charcoal is more porous than regular charcoal. This increased porosity makes it better able to trap toxins, odors, and other impurities in the air or water passing through it. This is why activated charcoal is used in filtration systems to purify air or water.
  • Oxygen: The primary distinction between charcoal and activated charcoal is the presence of oxygen. Charcoal is made by burning wood, coal, or other organic materials in a low-oxygen environment. This process results in a material that contains many tiny internal spaces that trap pollutants. On the other hand, activated charcoal is created by further processing ordinary charcoal with oxygen, opening up millions of tiny pores between the carbon atoms.
  • Heating temperature: Charcoal is heated to around 700-900°C, while activated charcoal is heated to 1100-1400°C.
  • Properties/Structure: Charcoal is a product of the incomplete burning of wood, hay, or other natural materials. It consists mainly of carbon but has other elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The structure of charcoal is very porous, with small cavities in its interior. On the other hand, activated charcoal is made from steam-activated pellets or granules of carbon. It has a much more porous structure than charcoal, which grants it an even larger surface area and many more cavities.
  • Porous structure: Charcoal is characterized by a porous structure, which gives it a large surface area. In contrast, activated charcoal has an even more porous structure due to its treatment with oxidizing agents such as oxygen or zinc chloride. This additional porosity increases the adsorption properties of activated charcoal.
  • Uses: Charcoal is primarily used to grill and barbecue food and create art supplies such as drawing sticks. It can also filter water or air, though it is not very effective at removing odors or toxins due to its low adsorption power. On the other hand, due to its powerful adsorption capabilities, activated charcoal is used as a filter for air and water purification and medical treatments such as treating poisoning and overdoses. It can also be used in industrial processes to control emissions or remove toxic substances from wastewater.
  • Composition: Charcoal consists primarily of elemental carbon with small amounts of oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur. Due to its high carbon content, it is highly porous and light in weight. Activated charcoal has a considerably higher porosity than regular char, with a much larger surface area that increases the adsorption of molecules passing through it. It mainly comprises carbon atoms but contains oxygen and other binding agents such as silica, alumina, and carbon monoxide.

Is Activated Charcoal The Same Thing As Activated Carbon?

Yes, activated charcoal and activated carbon are both forms of the same substance but are made differently. Charcoal is a form of carbon heated in an airless environment to very high temperatures (1,700-2,200°F). This causes it to expand and develop a porous structure. When activated charcoal is exposed to steam, it creates activated carbon. Activated carbon has an even larger and more highly-porous surface area than charcoal.


Why use activated charcoal in skincare?

Activated charcoal is often used in skin care because it absorbs excess oil and impurities. It works by binding to these substances so that they can be easily washed away with the activated charcoal.

Is charcoal similar to carbon?

Yes, charcoal is a form of carbon. Burning wood, coconut shells, or other organic materials without oxygen produces it. As a result, charcoal consists mainly of carbon but also contains small amounts of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen.

Can I eat activated carbon?

No, activated carbon is not meant to be consumed by humans.

Can you interchange activated charcoal?

No, activated and regular charcoal is different, although they come from similar sources.


Charcoal and activated charcoal are two very different materials with specific uses. Charcoal is a natural product for grilling food, art projects, and more. Activated charcoal is an artificially created product with a high adsorption rate and is commonly used in water filtration systems and medical applications. Both materials can be used for various purposes.

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