Is Charcoal Good for Tooth Whitening or Bad for Oral Health?

The newest whitening fad might actually increase your risk of cavities


Open Instagram and you’ll probably see a few photos of people smearing black goop on their faces. Keep scrolling and you might find the black stuff making its way into people’s mouths, too.

That’s right — people are brushing their teeth with activated charcoal, or regular charcoal that has been heated with a gas. Activated charcoal has become something of an Instagram trend as of late, thanks in part to brands like like BlackMagic, Carbon Coco, and Squeaky Clean claiming that activated charcoal can give people whiter smiles. But what do you need to know before you open wide? And perhaps most importantly, does activated charcoal actually work?.

The truth is, activated charcoal might be doing you more harm than good. In fact, the Oral Health Foundation in the U.K. just issued a statement warning people that the whitening effects of activated charcoal may be overblown, and brushing with it may actually put your teeth at risk.

Activated charcoal is simply common charcoal—made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, or petroleum—that is heated along with a gas, which makes the charcoal more porous. This helps activated charcoal “trap” chemicals, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. That’s one reason why it’s likely effective for its standard medical use, which is for treatment of poisoning.

Companies that make activated charcoal toothpaste also claim that the activated charcoal can remove toxins from the teeth and gums, which can lift stains from your teeth and leave you with a whiter smile.

But according to the Oral Health Foundation’s statement, these claims might not be accurate. First, the whitening effect: Looking at “before and after” photos doesn’t tell the entire story, said Nigel Carter, B.D.S., CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, in the statement.

“Much of the time the celebrity has had professional tooth whitening and their white smiles are not a direct result of using the product,”

he explained. A lot of the whitening claims are anecdotal, and even if you do notice an improvement, it’s likely not long-lasting since all it’s doing is removing surface stains.

But there might be a bigger issue at play here: if you’re only using charcoal toothpaste, you might be putting your teeth at risk.

One reason? Your toothpaste must contain high enough levels of fluoride to protect your teeth against decay, says Dr. Carter. Many of the activated charcoal toothpastes available now don’t contain enough fluoride to do so, he says.

The statement from the Oral Health Foundation isn’t the first time researchers have raised concerns about activated charcoal.

For one, the compounds in activated charcoal can be abrasive. Research from the Journal of Physics: Conference Series found that brushing with activated charcoal increases the roughness of tooth enamel, which can make it easier for bacteria to stick to the surface. That can put you at risk of greater plaque accumulation, more cavities, and even periodontal disease.

And a review from the Journal of the American Dental Association published earlier this year concluded that dentists should “advise their patients to be cautious” when using these products due to “unproven claims of efficacy and safety.”

Bottom line: There’s just a lot that we don’t know about activated charcoal right now, and there’s not enough evidence to prove that it can whiten your smile while keeping your teeth healthy.

October 5, 2017

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