Charcoal Toothpaste: A Dentist's Perspective
Activated charcoal exploded on the scene in recent years like a standout running back out of college. But what exactly is it… and does it work?
It’s “activated” because it occurs when charcoal gets treated with steam, oxygen and carbon dioxide along with other elements to remove it of any impurities. This in turn, makes the charcoal very fine, in terms of size.
I first encountered activated charcoal when I was struck with a stomach virus and my father brought out a torn, dated fanny pack from the former Soviet Union. He placed four black, circular pills into my hand.
I have to say charcoal is tough to swallow. I also don’t recommend chewing it. And yes, I did try it, and never did I think I’d be willingly smearing charcoal into my mouth… but here we are.
Today, you can find charcoal in many beauty supplies and health products. Its uses in medicine involving detoxification, quickly gained steam in health and beauty sections. A quick amazon search and you’ll find hundreds of products. There was even a full page article in the Wall Street journal featuring soaps, hair tonic, deodorants, exfoliators, and dental toothpaste.
With all this being said, I decided to give charcoal toothpaste a try. I then proceeded to photograph myself for your viewing pleasure.
I even bought a charcoal toothbrush (seen above). I’m still not sure what exactly it is, but it’s a black-bristled toothbrush so it must be charcoal, right? Honestly, I felt no difference with this toothbrush as compared to any other toothbrush I’ve used. It’s definitely novel, which makes it appealing. However, I see no advantage in a charcoal toothbrush unless it physically makes you want to brush your teeth twice a day. If that’s the case, go and buy it…
I will honestly admit, I felt my teeth were slightly whiter after brushing. But, my teeth were also much more sensitive. Immediately. Brushing with an abrasive, such as activated charcoal, will do that. And if you’ve ever looked at the back of your toothpaste ingredient list (which is an accomplishment of its own), chemicals such as calcium carbonate, dehydrated silica gels, hydrated aluminum oxides, magnesium carbonate, phosphate salts and silicate are really all abrasives as well. The key however is that they aren’t as abrasive as charcoal. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that charcoal as of yet is not FDA approved for dentistry.
If you’re a patient of mine, you’ve probably heard me compare brushing with charcoal to brushing with sandpaper. Just the simple act of brushing too hard can be detrimental to your teeth. Just check below:
Those notches aren’t cavities and frankly, I see them way too often in practice. These lesions can quite often occur from simple, overzealous toothbrush abrasion (one of the reasons we recommend soft bristled tooth brushes). My grandfather once told me there was a method of torture where the victim would have a single drop of water land on his forehead over and over until a hole formed (subconsciously I always felt like he was threatening me with this punishment if I didn’t finish his food).
The same holds true with brushing too eagerly. At Quentin Smile Dental, we’ll actually take the time out of your appointment to teach your kids and even you, the proper ways to brush your teeth while you stare at us and think: “really doc? I’m not a moron. I know how to brush”. But I digress…
A literature review recently published in the American Dental Association Journal by Brooks et al. states the following about charcoal toothpastes:
The results of this literature review 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.
In the long run, we may actually see those who use charcoal toothpaste routinely develop more sensitivity and actually yellower teeth. Yup, yellower. The reason is simple dental anatomy. The more enamel that’s removed, the more yellow dentin we see (see picture below). Dr. Steven Lin recommends keeping an eye out for less abrasive charcoal toothpaste. That’s something to consider when purchasing the product… but only time will tell its long-lasting implications.
What I’ve found is that a lot of the hoopla with charcoal toothpaste — as well as many other trends — has to do with confirmation bias. You read about it, someone blogged about it, a famous person has used it, and now you are using it already with the idea in your head that it will make your teeth whiter.
Now, if you’ve got a hot date and you think you will feel better about yourself, then I am all for it. But, like anything else in life, I would only recommend charcoal toothpaste in moderation. We don’t know the long term effects yet, which is why I definitely think you should consult a dental professional before using it.
What we do know for actual scientific fact however, is that brushing and flossing regularly and visiting your dentist for hygiene appointments is key to having healthy gums and teeth. Yes folks, the best way to keep your mouth happy and healthy and smiling is to still schedule regular checkups with yours truly! Shocking, I know.
Now I know we are not all blessed with the whitest of teeth, and for that there are whitening products that are m approved by the ADA. You can read about those products here. There’s also tanning (tip of the week), which is usually cheaper.
Just a regular dentist's 2 cents.
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Dr. Igor Khabensky
2148 Ocean Avenue, STE 401 Brooklyn, NY 11229