Does the latest activated charcoal teeth-whitening trend really work?
The trendy new way to get pearly white teeth is to turn them black. At
least, that’s according to the Pinterest boards and wellness blogs
that tout activated charcoal’s ability to absorb bacteria, plaque
and toxins for whiter, fresher teeth. But does it really work?
Maryam Mohsenzadeh, DDS, dental director of the Children’s Mobile Dental Clinic at
Queen of the Valley Medical Center, says, “Activated charcoal isn’t a miracle cure for oral health
problems, and the American Dental Association (ADA) has posted a warning
that it can be dangerous to your dental health.”
Activated charcoal is not the same as a charcoal briquette you’d
use in a barbecue. Rather, it is more porous, which allows it to draw
out chemicals from a substance—think water or air filters, for instance.
A physician may also use it in emergency cases of poison ingestion or
drug overdose. But more recently, it’s been adapted for home wellness
uses, including oral health care.
The thought behind activated charcoal is that, since many makeups are using
it to absorb oils, it may also be good to absorb stains from teeth. However,
says Dr. Mohsenzadeh, “There are no oils to absorb from teeth. What
they don’t tell you is that you are not absorbing the stain, you
are instead using a highly abrasive material that abrades away the enamel
surface of your teeth. The enamel cannot be replaced.”
The ADA says, “Using materials that are too abrasive on your teeth
can actually make them look more yellow. Enamel is what you’re looking
to whiten, but if you’re using a scrub that is too rough, you can
actually wear it away. When that happens, the next layer of your tooth
can become exposed – a softer, yellow tissue called dentin.”
Activated charcoal can be bought as a toothpaste or polish; do-it-yourself
folks can make their own by using activated charcoal powder and mixing
it with water. It’s then applied to the teeth for a few minutes,
getting rid of the tartar buildup that dulls whiteness, according to users.
But Dr. Mohsenzadeh emphasizes that activated charcoal hasn’t been
scientifically proven for safety or efficacy when it comes to brightening teeth.
“There haven’t been thorough medical studies on whether activated
charcoal truly improves the appearance and condition of teeth,”
Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. “And again, if the charcoal is heavily brushed
onto the teeth, its abrasiveness could wear away the tooth enamel and
cause more serious dental problems. There could be a tendency while using
activated charcoal to skip regular brushing and flossing, which are the
best ways to take care of teeth. Finally, there is the possibility that
the activated charcoal can get caught in fine cracks in the tooth enamel,
leaving a dark spot, which is the opposite of the intended effect.”
For now, Dr. Mohsenzadeh says the safest bet for teeth whitening is to
ask a dentist about possible treatments, either in the office or with
over-the-counter products. For the latter, the ADA recommends that consumers
look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance on a teeth-whitening product before
The Children’s Mobile Dental Clinic, founded by Queen of the Valley
Medical Center and its partners, provides basic preventive care and restorative
dental services to low-income families in Napa County. To learn more, click
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