Nowadays charcoal is one of the latest fad ingredients in personal care products. Activated charcoal skin care products promise to clear out the pores and rid skin of excess oil, “impurities,” and “toxins,” and charcoal deodorants claim to be a less harmful alternative to aluminum antiperspirants to soak up sweat and odor.
None of the charcoal-based personal care products have soaked up a loyal following quite like charcoal toothpaste has. Charcoal toothpastes with sleek black tubes and labels promising its whitening effects are making their ways to the top of store shelves and to celebrity social media accounts, and more and more people are starting to rinse gray water down the drain when they brush. But is charcoal toothpaste the natural miracle product that it’s made out to be, or just another marketing sham?
What is charcoal toothpaste?
The use of charcoal toothpaste has been trending for the past couple years, but it's actually an ancient technique spanning back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Prior to its use as toothpaste, Egyptians and Native Americans used charcoal to purify drinking water, help heal ailments, and mask odors from wounds. By 27 BC, Romans were mixing it with crushed shells and bones to make toothpaste, and this practice continued for centuries.
The technology has advanced since, and we now turn to what is called “activated charcoal” for water filtration, medical care, and oral care products. This isn’t quite the same charcoal as the kind you stick in your grill, so don’t try to DIY this one. Activated charcoal is made by burning carbon rich materials like char, coconut shells, peat, petroleum, wood, coal, olive pits or sawdust, and then “activating” the black, powdery byproduct by heating it to very high temperatures (about 1100-1600 degrees Fahrenheit).
This process creates a more porous charcoal with a large surface area and a negative charge that is ideal for absorbing molecules of dirt, oil, and toxins that have a positive charge. It’s commonly used medically to rid the stomach of poison or drugs, and it’s used in water filters to absorb bacteria, viruses, and fungus in tap water.
Once the charcoal is activated, it’s mixed with other ingredients necessary to formulate a toothpaste (some more effective than others).
Why do people use charcoal toothpaste?
Lately, it seems that if an ingredient boasts its absorbency or ability to “detox,” it manages to work its way into skin and personal care products. The “clean beauty” obsession that has swept the social media landscape has a focus on “detoxing,” as well as only using products with ingredients that are easily recognizable. Activated charcoal appears to fit the bill.
In theory, charcoal is said to bind to everything in its path due to its porous surface structure. In this case it would bind to plaque, tartar, surface stains, bacteria, bad breath, and the vague yet dreaded “toxins” that clean consumers seek to rid their bodies of.
But the main reason people are swishing around soot in their mouths is the belief that it has teeth whitening abilities. The paradoxical nature of a black toothpaste whitening the teeth is intriguing, but is it just a marketing myth?
Do charcoal toothpastes actually whiten teeth?
While charcoal toothpastes is abrasive enough to help remove surface stains that result from things like coffee, red wine, tobacco, and other dark colored food and drinks, there is no proof that it can have any actual thorough whitening abilities. Charcoal (and a majority of “whitening” toothpastes) only targets stains on the enamel (the outer layer of the teeth), but doesn’t have any whitening effect on the deeper level known as dentin.
The dentin level of our teeth can darken due to trauma, weakened enamel, or aging, and only bleaching treatments can penetrate past the enamel and whiten the dentin layer to provide the highly sought after long-lasting whitening effects.
However, if you can’t live without your daily cup of coffee, and you do want that daily removal of superficial surface stains, charcoal may help, but using another toothpaste with a different stain removing ingredient like baking soda can be just as effective.
Believing charcoal toothpaste can detox the mouth is an understandable mindset. If it can clear out water, and remove all its impurities, then shouldn’t it do the same for the teeth and mouth?
Well, charcoal can lift some of the plaque and food particles that lead to bad breath, but not any more than any other toothpaste.
You probably shouldn’t have all that many toxins in the mouth to begin with. Our mouths are full of a combination of both good and bad bacteria. We obviously want to get rid of the bacteria that causes bad breath and cavities, and most toothpastes are more than capable of removing this bacteria.
Negative effects of charcoal toothpaste
The ADA (American Dental Association) published a 2017 review on the studies behind charcoal toothpaste usage, and there is not enough evidence that it has any of the whitening, detoxing, and dental benefits that are associated with it. On top of that, there’s a slew of problems that can arise when using charcoal toothpaste regularly.
Does not prevent tooth decay - There is no sign that charcoal can prevent tooth decay, which is why charcoal toothpastes also contain xylitol or fluoride. If you see a charcoal-based oral care product that doesn’t contain any other ingredients meant to target plaque causing bacteria, then you should not use it as your main source for dental hygiene.
Gum Inflammation - Tiny charcoal particles can get lodged in the gums or fillings and are difficult to remove with normal brushing. This can lead to irritation and inflammation in the gums.
Dental erosion - Charcoal’s rough texture can help remove those pesky surface stains, but it can be too abrasive. Too much usage can wear down the enamel and expose the dentin, which in turn leads to even more permanent discoloration.
Other ingredients - With all the attention on charcoal, it’s easy for toothpaste brands to slip in some less than favorable ingredients that should be avoided. Common allergens and irritants like SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate), mint, tea tree oil, and sodium hydroxide can all be found in charcoal toothpastes currently on the market, and they can potentially cause canker sores, dry mouth, or allergic reactions.
Should you use charcoal toothpaste
Like with most oral care products, it’s always best to check with your dentist for professional advice on the ingredients and effectiveness of your toothpaste choices.
Since there’s little evidence that proves the marketing claims behind activated charcoal for the teeth and gums, and there’s just as many risks as there are potential benefits, stick to your regular toothpaste for the time being, and save the charcoal for the grill.
Dr. Flora Stay DDS recommends a toothpaste that uses xylitol to prevent cavities and baking soda to remove surface stains, so she formulated the Cleure Original Flavor Free Toothpaste.