Activated charcoal has emerged as a major trend in the skincare world — and is quickly doing likewise in the toothpaste market, based on its reputation for whitening teeth and neutralizing bacteria. Once a boutique product with limited availability, charcoal toothpaste has gone mainstream, being produced by major brands and sold on the oral care aisle of supermarkets, drugstores and big box retailers throughout the United States.
But just because toothpastes containing activated charcoal are now as easy to buy as your longtime favorite, should you give it a try? Does it live up to the hype, or should you avoid it? We’ll share with you what dentists — rather than social media influencers — know at present, so you can make an informed decision. Of course, should you have questions about the toothpaste best for your particular oral health needs, ask your dentist!
What Exactly is Activated Charcoal, and What Does it Do?
Unlike the charcoal briquettes used for grilling, activated charcoal is a fine grain powder made from natural substances such as wood, coconut shells, and other sources that are oxidized under extreme heat. This form of charcoal is highly absorbent and used medically to absorb and remove toxins. Common medicinal uses include poisoning/overdose antidote, and treatment for gastrointestinal tract infections and nausea. However, as Belleview Dental Associates points out, its use as a whitening toothpaste is still relatively new.
Are Charcoal Toothpastes Effective in Whitening Teeth?
The logic behind the charcoal toothpaste trend is that because activated charcoal is good at absorbing toxins, a toothpaste containing the substance will be effective in whitening teeth. As health and wellness journalist Amanda Capritto writes for CNET, “Because of its super absorbent properties, activated charcoal is thought to detoxify your mouth and super-clean your teeth by latching onto bacteria, tartar, food residue and stains, and stripping them all from your mouth.”
It is true that activated charcoal toothpaste may help remove surface stains on your teeth. Moreover, since charcoal is abrasive, it can remove tartar and mild stains. However, clinical studies of the efficacy (effectiveness) of such toothpastes are lacking, so no one can yet definitively claim that charcoal toothpaste whitens or cleans your teeth better than any other toothpaste. In fact, one study compared activated charcoal toothpaste to other toothpastes and found that the charcoal brand performed no better than the others.
In addition to the lack of clinical evidence supporting activated charcoal toothpaste’s reputation, there are several reasons to seriously consider whether you should use it.
What are the Risks of Using a Charcoal Toothpaste?
Brushing with a toothpaste containing activated charcoal won’t harm your teeth with occasional use. But if whitening your teeth is your primary goal — as mentioned earlier — it isn’t likely to be particularly effective. And if you’re determined to continue until you see results like those promoted on social media and beauty blogs, long-term use can have detrimental consequences, including the following:
Charcoal toothpaste is too abrasive for regular use — Although charcoal is a mild abrasive, it’s still too abrasive for daily use. It can wear down tooth enamel, which — ironically — will make your teeth appear more yellow. Why? When enamel is worn away, it exposes more of the dentin underneath, which is a yellowish color. Worn-away enamel will also make your teeth more sensitive. Keep in mind that enamel does not regenerate. Once it’s gone, it’s gone!
Most charcoal toothpaste brands don’t contain fluoride — Fluoride helps keep tooth enamel strong and protects against cavities. As our blog post — “What to Look for In a Toothpaste” — covers, fluoride is a natural mineral that’s used in most toothpaste brands to help harden tooth enamel, thereby strengthening teeth. Some activated charcoal toothpastes (usually those of major brands) do contain fluoride. Read the packaging to be sure.
Charcoal toothpaste can stain teeth — Obviously not what you’d expect from a product hyped for whitening teeth. However, charcoal particles can get caught in the small cracks of teeth and leave teeth gray or black around the edges.
Unknown effects on dental restorations — Because charcoal toothpaste is still a new trend, the long-term effect on such dental restorations as veneers, crowns or bridges isn’t yet known.
In addition to these drawbacks, there are certain circumstances in which activated charcoal toothpaste should not be used. Avoid it if you are pregnant, nursing, using birth control or any type of oral medication. Charcoal toothpaste that’s accidentally swallowed during brushing can decrease the absorption rate of medications.
Nor will an activated charcoal toothpaste lighten or eliminate stains below the enamel. Actually, neither will a traditional whitening toothpaste. There are two types of enamel stains: extrinsic and intrinsic. Artis Dental Center explains as follows:
Extrinsic stains occur on the surface of the tooth and happen when stain-inducing particles such as food or drink residue that is strongly pigmented are allowed to build up in the film of protein that covers our tooth enamel. Extrinsic stains can commonly be treated using regular dental cleanings and a variety of teeth whitening products, such as whitening toothpaste.
Intrinsic stains occur beneath the surface of the tooth when stain-causing particles are able to work their way through the outer layer of your tooth and accumulate within the enamel. Intrinsic tooth stains are more difficult to remove than extrinsic stains, but they can be treated. Intrinsic stains typically require either in-office or take-home whitening solutions provided by your dentist.
In addition, the popular belief that charcoal toothpaste detoxifies your mouth is more pseudoscience than science. As a blog post by Caven Dental Group makes clear, “Charcoal also can’t ‘detox’ your mouth beyond the regular cleaning you’d get from any good toothpaste. The claim is based on the idea that your teeth and gums actually absorb toxins, similar to the way your liver and kidneys do. The idea is that the charcoal pulls those toxins out of your gums and binds them to itself, thus leaving you with a cleaner, detoxified mouth.
“The problem is, though, that your teeth and gums don’t absorb bacteria in that way. There aren’t any extra toxins hanging around in your mouth beyond the bacteria from food debris you haven’t brushed away yet — which, again, can be eliminated using any decent quality toothpaste.”
Moreover, a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA), concluded that the results of its review, titled Charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices, “… showed insufficient clinical and laboratory data to substantiate the safety and efficacy claims of charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices. Larger-scale and well-designed studies are needed to establish conclusive evidence. Dental clinicians should advise their patients to be cautious when using charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices with unproven claims of efficacy and safety.”
The Take-Home Message
Activated charcoal toothpaste may be the trend du jour, but at present, the risks and drawbacks outweigh any perceived benefits. Regardless of its ingredients, make sure that the toothpaste you choose has the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance. This ensures that it has been tested and ensured by the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, which means the claims are confirmed and the ingredients are safe and effective.
If you are in pursuit of a dazzling white smile, many safe, proven options are available. A great basic first step is scheduling regular dental examinations and cleanings! An exam performed by your dentist will detect cavities, periodontal disease and other conditions early so they can be treated before they become more serious — while a professional cleaning will eliminate unsightly surface stains.
Should you want an even brighter smile, NK Family Dental offers professional teeth whitening treatments that leave teeth noticeably whiter. A single treatment can make a significant improvement in the appearance of your smile, providing you with the look you have always wanted.
Our practice is proud to offer the Zoom and Opalescence brands teeth whitening treatments. Both Zoom and Opalescence are highly respected in the dental community, having helped millions of people brighten their teeth and enhance their smiles. Just one treatment with Zoom or Opalescence can leave your teeth up to eight shades whiter, providing dramatic results.
We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.
At NK Family Dental, it is our mission to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including both dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.
Our dental specialists include our general dentist, Dr. Nilofer Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.