Does the the activated charcoal teeth-whitening trend really work?
The trendy new way to get pearly white teeth is to turn them black. At least, that’s according to the Pinterest boards and wellness blogs that tout activated charcoal’s ability to absorb bacteria, plaque and toxins for whiter, fresher teeth. But does it really work? Maryam Mohsenzadeh, DDS, dental director of the Children’s Mobile Dental Clinic at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, says, “Activated charcoal isn’t a miracle cure for oral health problems, and the American Dental Association (ADA) has posted a warning that it can be dangerous to your dental health.”
Activated charcoal is not the same as a charcoal briquette you’d use in a barbecue. Rather, it is more porous, which allows it to draw out chemicals from a substance—think water or air filters, for instance. A physician may also use it in emergency cases of poison ingestion or drug overdose. But more recently, it’s been adapted for home wellness uses, including oral health care.
The thought behind activated charcoal is that, since many makeups are using it to absorb oils, it may also be good to absorb stains from teeth. However, says Dr. Mohsenzadeh, “There are no oils to absorb from teeth. What they don’t tell you is that you are not absorbing the stain, you are instead using a highly abrasive material that abrades away the enamel surface of your teeth. The enamel cannot be replaced.”
The ADA says, “Using materials that are too abrasive on your teeth can actually make them look more yellow. Enamel is what you’re looking to whiten, but if you’re using a scrub that is too rough, you can actually wear it away. When that happens, the next layer of your tooth can become exposed – a softer, yellow tissue called dentin.”
Activated charcoal can be bought as a toothpaste or polish; do-it-yourself folks can make their own by using activated charcoal powder and mixing it with water. It’s then applied to the teeth for a few minutes, getting rid of the tartar buildup that dulls whiteness, according to users. But Dr. Mohsenzadeh emphasizes that activated charcoal hasn’t been scientifically proven for safety or efficacy when it comes to brightening teeth.
“There haven’t been thorough medical studies on whether activated charcoal truly improves the appearance and condition of teeth,” Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. “And again, if the charcoal is heavily brushed onto the teeth, its abrasiveness could wear away the tooth enamel and cause more serious dental problems. There could be a tendency while using activated charcoal to skip regular brushing and flossing, which are the best ways to take care of teeth. Finally, there is the possibility that the activated charcoal can get caught in fine cracks in the tooth enamel, leaving a dark spot, which is the opposite of the intended effect.”
For now, Dr. Mohsenzadeh says the safest bet for teeth whitening is to ask a dentist about possible treatments, either in the office or with over-the-counter products. For the latter, the ADA recommends that consumers look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance on a teeth-whitening product before purchasing it.
The Children’s Mobile Dental Clinic, founded by Queen of the Valley Medical Center and its partners, provides basic preventive care and restorative dental services to low-income families in Napa County. To learn more, click here.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.