Jessamin E. Cipollina, M.A.
Charcoal has become a recognized active ingredient over the past couple of years, finding its way onto our restaurant menus and into our makeup bags. Spend any amount of time online and you will find ads from so-called “health gurus” and social media influencers sporting messy black smiles to promote the health benefits of brushing with charcoal. Beauty product manufacturers, celebrities and social media platforms are highly influential in promoting activated charcoal to not only brighten teeth, but also ingest as part of a cleansing “detox” regimen. Although charcoal appears to be a “proven” cure-all for our teeth and bodies, there is insufficient evidence that using charcoal products provide any significant health benefits. With new health and beauty crazes on the rise, health professionals and researchers are now responsible for keeping checks and balances on whether these fads are helpful or hurtful.
Activated charcoal is known for its ability to bind to organic matter, and producers of charcoal toothpaste claim that it is able to bind to plaque and other bacteria in the mouth to effectively clean teeth and remove staining. Many manufacturers claim that activated charcoal is a natural product that has been used for centuries to cleanse the body inside and out. With roots in ancient Greece, charcoal and ash composites were reportedly used to clean teeth and freshen breath.1 Charcoal is also well known for its detoxifying effects; activated charcoal can prevent poisonous substances and chemicals from being absorbed into the bloodstream, and thus is now sold as a “detox” additive for food and drinks. These are unfounded claims with no scientific evidence backing them up. There also are many other reasons to be wary of using charcoal tooth whitening products beyond the unknown.2
Many medical experts agree that although charcoal toothpastes may be effective in removing stains, there is no evidence of any significant whitening effects. In fact, long-term use of charcoal products on teeth can wear down tooth enamel due to their abrasive nature and further expose dentin in teeth making them look yellower than whiter. Prolonged use can also irritate gums and increase tooth sensitivity. Most charcoal toothpastes also do not contain fluoride, proven to keep teeth and gums healthy and protect against decay.1-3
A recent article from the British Dental Journal provides an in-depth review of current knowledge surrounding charcoal toothpastes and powders, and how the risks of using such products could outweigh the benefits.1 The authors argue that there is very little evidence supporting manufacturers’ claims that charcoal can whiten teeth and improve oral health. Rather, there is sufficient evidence that charcoal dentifrices may ultimately cause more harm than good. In addition to charcoal toothpastes not containing fluoride, potentially abrading dentin, irritating gums and increasing tooth sensitivity, the authors cite another potential risk of charcoal as a carcinogen. It is possible that long-term use of charcoal products could have dire outcomes.1,2 Overall, there is simply not enough evidence to support that charcoal promotes oral health and hygiene, as the proposed risks appear to offset the wildly under-researched “benefits”.
Activated charcoal products are promoted as handy tooth-whitening tools among other over-the-counter tooth whitening gels and films. Although these regimens are considered safe, consumers should at the very least be aware of potential risks and common side effects of tooth whitening. Both tooth whitening and bleaching products contain chemicals that lighten tooth color. As might be expected from using chemicals, increased tooth sensitivity and gum irritation are common and often to a mild degree. More serious side effects, particularly from repeated or prolonged use of whitening regimens, include enamel softening, tooth roughness, and demineralization, along with increased susceptibility to dehydration.4 It is important to point out that white teeth are not necessarily a sign of healthy teeth; maintaining good oral hygiene by brushing twice daily for two minutes with a fluoride toothpaste, daily flossing, and regular dental check-ups is ultimately the best way to guarantee a healthy and happy smile.
1Greenwall LH, Greenwall-Cohen J, Wilson NHF. Charcoal-containing dentifrices. Br Dent J. 2019;226(9);697-700. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41415-019-0232-8. Accessed January 7, 2019.
2Santos-Longhurst A. Charcoal toothpaste for teeth whitening: the pros and cons. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/dental-and-oral-health/charcoal-toothpaste. Updated June 18, 2019. Accessed January 7, 2019.
3Vyas K. The truth about activated charcoal. Interesting Engineering. https://interestingengineering.com/the-truth-about-activated-charcoal. Published September 13, 2019. Accessed January 7, 2019.
4Carey CM. Tooth-whitening: what we now know. J Evid Based Dent Pract. 20114;14(Suppl);70-76. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4058574/. Accessed January 7, 2019.