Oral hygiene has been at the top of my priorities list ever since braces made it hard to brush properly and turned my teeth a bit yellow. Since then, I’ve dedicated a huge amount of time to scoping out the latest in whitening trends and trying them all. After dabbling in all kinds of at-home treatments, black toothpastes and mouthwashes made with activated charcoal were my go-to, but now, there’s talk about how charcoal toothpaste may be bad for your teeth, and it's coming straight from the mouths of experts.
When I first came across this popular wellness trend, I was feeling a lot of things: disturbed, curious, confused. When I heard the word “charcoal,” I envisioned my dad firing up the grill for a summer barbecue; to me, charcoal was something dirty, like soot, and why would anyone voluntarily put it in their mouth, let alone brush their teeth with it? Well, for starters, the charcoal in your toothpaste is activated charcoal, which isn’t exactly the same as the charcoal you fire up and cook with; you definitely don’t want that in your mouth. But, apparently, you really shouldn’t be using the activated stuff either.
So what exactly is activated charcoal, and why are brands and influencers encouraging you to brush with this black stuff to whiten your teeth?
So let’s start with the basics: What is activated charcoal, and why is it ~allegedly~ OK to put in your mouth? According to Healthline, activated charcoal can be made from a whole host of things — bone char, coconut shells, peat (aka brown, decomposed vegetable matter), petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil), coal, olive pits, or sawdust — that are ground up into a fine powder and processed at a high temperature to create a charcoal that is “more porous” than charcoal briquettes (which is the stuff you BBQ with). This basically means liquid or air can run through activated charcoal, and it’s somewhat “cleaner” than charcoal briquettes because it’s been detoxified.
I actually never thought to look up what activated charcoal was made of, and clearly that was a major faux-pas on my part. It doesn’t exactly sound like a genius idea to be scraping the gunk off your teeth with even more gunk like decomposed vegetable matter, byproducts of oil, and sawdust, does it? So why are brands and influencers still onboard with using blackened toothpaste in order to achieve a mouth full of pearly whites?
According to Jamie Morea, a gut health expert and co-founder of Hyperbiotics, activated charcoal is a “gentle abrasive” — aka a substance used to polish a surface — that works to remove surface stains on your teeth with a sort of magnet-like method. “Once the charcoal loosens the molecules causing the stains,” she tells Elite Daily, “it binds to them, removing them from your mouth when you spit and rinse.” The results? That 1,000-watt smile everyone talks about.
When Morea puts it into perspective this way, brushing your teeth with activated charcoal sounds like a great whitening strategy. Unfortunately, though, there's a catch.
The thought process behind using activated charcoal to whiten your teeth is actually pretty genius — in theory, at least. Technically it does work, but the long-term effects are what experts want you to be aware of. See, the activated charcoal itself isn’t what’s whitening your teeth. It's stripping your mouth of stains and toxins, sure, but according to Sarah Jebreil, DDS, an accredited member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, a combination of removing stains and “tattooing the gums” (aka making that pink cushion look a little more rosy) is what’s really making your smile appear brighter and whiter.
Charcoal toothpaste is great as a pre-treatment before at-home whitening kits, Jebreil tells Elite Daily, because it can help remove even more surface stains — but, she adds, it definitely shouldn’t be your everyday toothpaste. “Because [activated charcoal] is abrasive, it can wear the enamel, especially the enamel at the gum line of the tooth, where it is the thinnest, causing sensitivity and irreversible enamel loss," Jebreil says. In other words, it’s kind of a backhanded treatment, because while using charcoal toothpaste is effective if you want to polish teeth your quickly, the long-term effects aren’t exactly Instagram-worthy.
It also doesn’t take very long for charcoal toothpaste to start taking a serious toll on your teeth. Depending on how hard you brush and the bristles on your toothbrush, Jebreil says it only takes about four uses of charcoal’s abrasive treatment before you start seeing enamel loss. Of course, if you don’t know what enamel is, then this doesn’t sound like a huge loss, but it is. According to Crest, enamel is “the hard, outer surface layer of your teeth that serves to protect against tooth decay.” So yeah, I’d say it's important to keep that intact, wouldn’t you?
So if you shouldn't use charcoal toothpaste regularly, how are you supposed to keep your teeth healthy and stain-free?
Well, for starters, stop being lazy or using your busy schedule as an excuse, and brush your teeth twice a day. According to a survey issued by oral care start-up company Hello Products, a whopping 30 percent of 2,000 participants (cough, millennials) only brush once a day. On top of that, dentists are practically begging you to floss once a day at the very least because, for some reason, a lot of people assume flossing is optional, even though it definitely isn't. So brush, floss, throw some mouthwash into the mix, and you're golden. If you want to get fancy about it, tongue scraping also gets rid of a lot of bacteria in your mouth, too.
Now, this isn't all to say charcoal toothpaste is the devil; you can use the stuff in moderation. Before making the purchase, however, Morea recommends talking to you dentist about whether or not charcoal toothpaste is safe for your teeth, and what brands are OK to use. "Most forms of charcoal toothpaste still have to be approved due to the lack study and their long-term effects on teeth and enamel," she tells Elite Daily, so it's best to be safe and double-check with your doctor. Otherwise, brushing with natural toothpastes, like Toms of Maine, and at-home whitening treatments, like those by Colgate and Crest, are the way to go.