That activated charcoal bloggers can’t stop posting about? Dental professionals might be biting back. Charcoal, which is basically man-made coal, is great for brooding self portraits in high school art class — but using charcoal on your teeth and gums might have landed you on the naughty list with a (char)coal “gift” this holiday because recent research suggests the black stuff is likely just another gimmick and may even be harmful if used incorrectly. We’re *activating* our dental professionals to give us the hard-as-enamel truth on activated charcoal bristles, toothpaste, and other oral care products.
What is it and how does it work?
Let’s start with the science basics. Charcoal is black carbon, which is most commonly the char or ash formed when burning wood, bone, or other organic matter such as coconut shells or peat. Charcoal becomes “activated” when it’s exposed to high temperatures and gases that expand its surface area, causing tiny ridges to form on its surface. These tiny edges give the charcoal a large surface area, which can be great for binding to toxins inside the body. That toxin binding property is why charcoal is being thrown into everything from drinks to pills to be marketed as a “detoxifier” by the wellness community (even though… it isn't really.)
So, why is it in oral care?
This idea of detoxification is one of the reasons charcoal has recently been added (back) to toothpaste. The concept was that if charcoal can bind to and remove toxins in the intestine, maybe it could bind to and remove stains or dirt on teeth to help “whiten” them. (spoiler: it hasn’t been shown to)
The second reason for using charcoal in paste to “whiten,” like most blogger trends, was popularized by the ancient Romans (which is kind of shocking because black products can easily stain a white toga.) The Romans preferred more abrasive toothpastes than their contemporaries in China back in the day, and so mixed abrasive charcoal with bark, crushed bones, and oyster shells to try and “rub away” stains aggressively (think sandpaper). Sounds delightful.
As a reminder, modern dental toothpaste is meant to work with your bristles as a team to gently clean the surfaces of your teeth and the space between your teeth and gums, in addition to strengthening your teeth with ingredients like fluoride. Abrasiveness is now considered a negative characteristic when it comes to toothpaste, which is probably why toothpastes don’t have oyster shells in them anymore — but they thought they knew what was up in the olden days.
Charcoal gradually fell out of ancient beauty guru bathroom cabinets after 1000 A.D., as people started using less aggressive (but still pretty harsh) dental cleaning material like snail shells and herbs. It was another 800 years until it re-entered mainstream sink streams in the 19th century as ingredients for early toothpastes, which were still an alternative to tooth powders — a precursor to thick pastes — that were the more popular hygiene product at the time. Now, in the 21st century, it seems charcoal is once again taking over the world. Just this time with a bunch of beauty bloggers and speculative news articles, and in more products than just toothpaste. Charcoal bristles and flosses are readily available to be double-tapped and put in your mouth.
Does it work in toothpaste?
While it might seem a little weird to care for your pearly whites with a deeply black material, many people swear by the stuff and have really fallen in love with it. We’re all for loving your oral care products — but the actual evidence for charcoal effectiveness is... dark, like the charcoal itself.
Charcoal’s main draw is that it is supposed to help whiten your teeth and remove stains, especially as activated charcoal. The problem is that no long-term studies exist to prove that activated charcoal has any measurable dental hygiene-related benefits at all, and JADA (The Journal of the American Dental Association) recently published research saying there is no evidence of safety or effectiveness. Dental professionals, including our very own quip dentist, Dr. Hariawala, say that not only are the "toxin binding" properties of charcoal unproven to help whiten teeth, but it can be too abrasive for your teeth and wear down the protective enamel layer, even causing harm to your gums, especially if used incorrectly (which most people do).
Above all, the biggest reason not to use charcoal as a toothpaste replacement is that almost all of them don’t include important active ingredients with actual proven, long-term oral health effectiveness like fluoride. In fact, it is believed that the fluoride included in the very few charcoal pastes that do include it is likely nullified by the charcoal itself by the time it leaves the tube, making it pretty useless.
Does it work in bristles and other products?
Some charcoal products are more obviously marketing fluff than others, and most dentists would certainly put “charcoal infused bristles” at the top of the naughty list. As explained, proponents of charcoal use it for absorbing toxins, which (despite being unproven to do anything for teeth) is best done in theory when the charcoal is left to sit on a surface for some time undisturbed to allow it to attach to toxins, and then removed.
Bristles that are “infused with charcoal” are thought of as a gimmick for a few reasons. Firstly, the charcoal is usually infused (or diluted) in another material to help form the shape of a bristle, this is often nylon (plastic) and thus the bristle is far more plastic than charcoal. Secondly, bristles are exposed to air for 3 months at a time and so, even if they were absorbing toxins, they would potentially be absorbing more toxins from the bathroom air than during the limited time they are in contact with your teeth. The third and biggest reason they are likely ineffective comes back to the need to leave charcoal on a surface for it to work. While brushing, bristles are in contact for each area of your tooth for a faction of a second at a time, so the idea that they could be absorbing toxins from teeth while brushing is…. a stretch to say the least. A final warning from professionals on charcoal bristles is that charcoal can sometimes make your bristles wider and stiffer, increasing the odds of damaging your gums and decreasing the ability for the bristles to bend and clean the gum line as they are intended to.
Then why do people keep using it, and why are companies still putting it in their products?
It probably has a lot to do with our culture’s obsession with white teeth, which are idealized in everything from movies and TV, to fashion and art. Pearly white smiles are considered desirable, and stained yellow teeth are seen as ugly and unclean. Companies know this, and want to add something that seems trendy to their products to increase cost and marketability rather than features that actually help improve your health. Also: White teeth aren’t necessarily healthy teeth — there’s even evidence that yellow teeth could be stronger than white ones. What’s most important (of course) is that your teeth have a clean bill of health. If your teeth are healthy and white, woohoo! But, sometimes that’s not the case as genetics play a huge role — and you should never sacrifice your health for shiny teeth, as many whitening products unfortunately do.
So how do you maintain healthy, unstained white teeth? It all comes back to sticking to the tried-and-tooth-truth oral care routine: Brushing for two minutes, twice a day, being aware of what goes on in your mouth, flossing daily, changing your brush on time, and visiting the dentist every 6 months.
If you’re still sold on charcoal products, be sure to keep in mind all of the pros and cons that come along with any unproven new ingredient — and the motivation behind why it is in your products — and most importantly all, consult your personal dentists for further, personalized advice on the matter.