Ask a Hygienist: Activated Charcoal
Activated Charcoal – Should I Use It?
by Lauren Marques, BSDH, RDH
Activated charcoal is a manufactured product that has benefits such as water filtration, binding with intestinal gas, and is used by doctors to treat poisoning and overdoses. If you’re a science nerd and want to read up on how activated charcoal works, Dr. Anne Marie Helmestine (2019) breaks down the mechanism in which activated charcoal is created and its effectiveness here. Activated charcoal is currently all the rage in skincare products, at the smoothie bar, and now… in toothpaste!
First, let’s talk about how whitening pastes work. Generally, whitening toothpastes remove stain through the action of abrasion – “scratching” stains off of the surface of the tooth (think: sandpaper!). Common mild abrasives you may see in toothpaste are hydrated silica, calcium carbonate, and baking soda. These products are recognized by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as being Generally Recognized as Safe (GRaS).
Currently, charcoal pastes are gaining popularity due to its claim that it can brighten your smile though its abrasiveness and “detoxing” mechanisms. But what evidence do we have that it works? Unfortunately, there is not a lot of scientific studies to back up the claim. The Journal of the American Dental Association posted a literature review stating little to no evidence of the safety and effectiveness of charcoal as a whitening agent. In 2017, the Journal of Physics released a study that concluded that brushing with a charcoal paste nearly doubled tooth roughness after three months of use – suggesting that it may be too abrasive to use and suggests reconsidering the use of toothpastes containing charcoal for the long term.
Additionally, the United States Center for Disease Control stated that charcoal powder is as carcinogenic as cigarette smoke, and that mixing a powder into toothpaste form at home can pose a dangerous risk.
However, reputable dental companies are following the trend for charcoal pastes. Crest released a toothpaste with charcoal, claiming to gently remove surface stains and remineralize weakened enamel through fluoride. The brand HELLO released a charcoal paste claiming to be less abrasive than charcoal powder and well within the safety limit for toothpaste abrasiveness as suggested by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
So, the short answer: There has been very little evidence that charcoal has any effect on tooth whitening. Charcoal also has minimal studies on the negative effect and abrasiveness on enamel. We recommend that if you do decide to use charcoal toothpaste, purchase from a reputable toothpaste brand as a pre-mixed paste, and do not use it long term.
Keep in mind with any whitening toothpaste – whether or not recognized as “safe” by the FDA or within ISO standards– whitening pastes may cause sensitivity, weaken enamel, or further damage exposed root surfaces (called gum recession). While we do find that most side effects are temporary, please consult your dental professional. We can help you find the products that are best for you!
Do you have a dental question for Lauren? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what’s on your mind.
Brooks, J., Bashirelahi, N., Reynolds, M. (2017). Charcoal and charcoal-based dentrifices. Retrieved from https://jada.ada.org/article/S0002-8177(17)30412-9/fulltext
Food & Drug Administration (2018). Generally recognized as safe. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/generally-recognized-safe-gras
Hello (n.d). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.hello-products.com/faq/
Helmenstine, A. (2019). Activated charcoal and how it works. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-does-activated-charcoal-work-604294
Pertiwi, U., Eriwati, Y., and Irawan, B. (2017). Surface changes of enamel after brushing with charcoal toothpaste. Retrieved from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1742-6596/884/1/012002