(Guest post by Brandy Husted, Smile IQ Professional Dental Hygienist)

Activated charcoal is making its way into beauty products of all sorts.  From face masks, to exfoliating scrubs to detoxifying elixirs, it is the new ‘it ingredient’ in personal care products these days.   Charcoal toothpastes are also popping up in dental products with grand claims of whitening, brightening, and eliminating plaque and bad breath.  I wanted to take a look at these claims from a hygienist’s perspective to sort out the benefits and the risks from all the hype.

What is Activated Charcoal?

It is a form of carbon, but not quite like the briquette variety you use in your BBQ!  It’s treated to make the surface of the particles porous.  These tiny pores act like powerful magnets for other particles to get absorbed and whisked away.  In medicine, you may have heard of being given activated charcoal to neutralize a poison or toxin like alcohol.  Charcoal toothpastes are a rediscovery of this tried-and-true practice. The claims are that the paste binds to everything in its path – stains, tartar, bacteria, viruses, etc.  Sounds, great right?  Maybe not. Let me break down the claims one at a time.

The Good and the Bad (and the Unknown and Unproven)

Our biggest concern for teeth is the abrasiveness of charcoal.  In regular toothpaste, the shape and size of the polishing or abrasive particles are carefully controlled.  They have uniform, rounded edges and each toothpaste has been tested on an abrasiveness index. My worry for the great and rising number of charcoal tablets, dental powders, and actual toothpastes is that none of these products are regulated for abrasiveness (or other ingredients for that matter).  Long term, overuse could at first remove surface stains, but also wear away enamel.  As enamel thins, the underlying dentin shows through as more yellow, actually making your teeth irreversibly darker, more sensitive, and more prone to decay. Once you lose the thickness of your enamel, you can never get it back.  Some products say low abrasive, which seems like a better choice to me, but again these products are unregulated and untested.  I think there may be some use for them, but short term and with specific application techniques that I will discuss later.

It’s worth discussing the difference between stain removal and whitening to understand the risks and claims of charcoal and any other whitening toothpaste.  Over time, dietary stains can accumulate on your teeth and cause discoloration.  Most toothpastes with whitening claims use varying levels of abrasiveness to remove this discoloration on the surface of the tooth with varying effectiveness and safety.  There is also discoloration that is internal, or inside the actual structure or pores of the tooth.  This can be from how your tooth formed, how transparent your enamel is, medications and long-term tobacco use.  An abrasive toothpaste will NOT remove these stains deep inside the enamel without damaging or removing enamel.  You require an active ingredient like hydrogen peroxide, found in whitening gels from your dentist or some over-the-counter whitening systems to penetrate into the pores and neutralize or lift these stains.  Hydrogen Peroxide-type whitening systems have been used for decades now, are a natural ingredient, non- toxic (breaks down into water in you mouth and gut) and are non-harmful to the tooth.  Occasional, short-term sensitivity is sometimes seen with these products.  Activated charcoal claims to lift and absorb toxins and stain too.  In theory, this may be possible but the mechanism with which is does this is unstudied and unproven.  My gut feeling is that it works primarily as abrasive to remove these stains.  Until the safety and effectiveness is looked at long term for these products, my recommendation is to use a professional whitening product, or something like Crest White strips.  You don’t get a second chance with your permanent teeth!

Next…I will continue my discussion on the antibacterial, breath improving claims of activated charcoal in Part 2 of this blog in the next couple weeks.  Also, I will detail how to use these products more safely if you are hoping to include them in your smile routine! As always, if you have any questions or concerns about teeth whitening, please feel free to ask me or any of our hygienists at Kherani Dental at Aspen. We are here to help!