Activated Charcoal: Teeth Whitening Secret or Total Scam?

Activated Charcoal: Teeth Whitening Secret or Total Scam?
Photo: Pond5

You brush your teeth and floss on the reg. You’ve tried everything from the latest toothpaste to whitening strips, gels and trays but nothing seems to give you that 100-watt smile. So what’s the best way to get gleaming pearly whites?

According to Pinterest and YouTube, the path to whiter teeth is covered in a pitch-black paste. Bloggers and vloggers claim that brushing with activated charcoal is an all-natural way to remove surface stains caused by coffee, tea or red wine without bleach or abrasives. To prove it, they’re flaunting soot-covered teeth straight out of a horror movie. The result? Fluorescent white teeth after as few as one use, proponents say.

While you may have used charcoal in your skincare and juice routine (see the pros and cons of ingesting it here), should you replace your toothpaste with the powdery black substance? We checked in with dental professionals to find out whether activated charcoal is a safe and effective way to whiten your teeth — or if it will just leave your mouth full of dust.

RELATED: Could Eating Charcoal Help You Detox?

Activated Charcoal: The Whitening Promise

“Activated charcoal has been used for many things. It’s a purifying agent that absorbs impurities,” says Dr. Mark Wolff, DDS, Professor and Chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at the New York University College of Dentistry. While you’ll find activated charcoal in air filters, traditionally, hospitals and poison control centers use it to treat accidental poisoning or a drug overdose. Unlike the bricks you use for your backyard barbecue, activated charcoal’s enormous surface area is dotted with the numerous nooks and crannies that draw in and trap toxic substances in your gut like a sponge, preventing them from being absorbed by the body by approximately 47 percent. The bad stuff is then carried out with your next bowel movement.

“Like any abrasive, we’re worried about the effects on the gums and enamel on the teeth.”

More recently, though, the superfine powder has made its way to the health and beauty market, popping up in everything from face masks to cleaners to detox regimens. And the latest body part to get the black magic treatment is your smile. After all, if activated charcoal can remove toxins from our body and skin, can’t it remove those pesky stains from your teeth and get them squeaky clean?

Is Black the New White?

Proponents say yes. And the prescription is simple: First, break open capsules of activated charcoal, mix the powder with water, then brush the thick black paste directly onto your teeth. Others recommend swishing the powder around in your mouth or using a special toothpaste containing charcoal. After three to five minutes, rinse away the charcoal (and stains) and voilà! Whiter teeth. In theory, at least…

Your teeth may become discolored due to a variety of factors from poor dental hygiene to the food you eat to just getting older. “If you eat a blueberry, it could stain it blue,” says Dr. Wolff. “Those are the types of stains that they think if you brush with charcoal, you can clean off.”

But Minneapolis-based dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association Dr. Kim Harms, DDS says to hold off. “There’s no evidence at all that activated charcoal does any good for your teeth,” says Dr. Harms. She worries about the potential damage the grainy substance can do to your teeth and gums. “Like any abrasive, we’re worried about the effects on the gums and enamel on the teeth. We don’t know about the safety and effectiveness of it,” she says. And according to Dr. Wolff, attempts to use charcoal in toothpaste haven’t been met with tremendous success.

Dr. Harms also notes that activated charcoal shouldn’t replace everyday teeth cleaning and regular visits to the dentist. “The important part of brushing and flossing is the physical removal of plaque. The toothpaste you’re using, from a dentist’s point of view, delivers fluoride to teeth,” she says. “We’re concerned about practices where people are using products without fluoride. Fluoride is nature’s cavity fighter and can cut tooth decay by up to 40 percent.”

Charcoal Toothpaste: The Gritty Truth 

“There’s no scientific indication that [activated charcoal] actually works and there are better options out there that do work,” says Dr. Harms. If you want a gleaming white smile, both Dr. Harms and Dr. Wolff recommend talking to your dentist about using traditional whitening toothpaste for surface stains or over-the-counter treatments for deeper stains.

“Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” says Dr. Wolff. “I still recommend any of the mainstream whitening toothpastes or seeing the dentist. The mainstream whitening toothpastes are going to be safe. There are a number of products on the market that can be too abrasive.” If you do go the DIY charcoal-route, he advises using it sparingly and discontinuing its use if your teeth become sensitive.

Originally published March 2016. Updated July 20, 2017. 

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