What could be better than a gleaming smile full of beautiful pearly whites? A healthy smile with shiny white teeth is high on everyone’s list when it comes to personal care. But for many of us, staining means that the colour of our teeth isn’t as we’d like it. It's available in many commercial toothpastes, but does activated charcoal whiten teeth?February 05, 2021 11:43 am September 07, 2020 4:30 pm
Activated charcoal toothpaste has become something of a beauty trend in recent years, popping up in commercial and natural toothpastes alike.
Some charcoal toothpastes act like a normal toothpaste and just add a little charcoal to help things along. Others, though, feature activated charcoal as a main ingredient and rely on it to clean teeth, remove stains and handle the bacteria in our mouths.
In this article, we’re going to dig a little deeper into the hype and see whether activated charcoal whitens teeth for real. .
But first, let’s find out a bit about what activated charcoal actually is.
Where does activated charcoal come from?
Activated charcoal is made from wood and other plant matter like coconut shells or willow tree.
First, the plant matter is strongly heated in the absence of oxygen (slow pyrolysis). Crucially, the lack of oxygen prevents it from catching fire, but the heat is enough to remove all the water. What is left at the end of this process is good old normal charcoal, a black crumbly substance which is between 85 and 98% pure carbon.(1)
You’ll have come across this type of charcoal before in everything from barbecues to artist’s materials, where it is often used because of the deep rich black colour it adds to sketches.
To ‘activate’ the charcoal, it must be put through either a physical or a chemical activation process.
Physical activation involves exposing charcoal to carbon dioxide, oxygen or steam at a very high temperature.
Chemical activation employs acids such as phosphoric acid or sodium hydroxide to the plant material and following it up with pyrolysis.
After undergoing these processes, the charcoal becomes very porous and its surface is covered in many tiny crevices and cracks. This drastically increases its surface area.(1)
Because of its large surface area, activated charcoal is able to adsorb other substances very effectively. Adsorption means that it grabs these substances and holds them to its surface, clinging to them almost like a film.
This special ability has encouraged people to use it in all sorts of ways throughout history, from treating poisonings to improving digestion. Head to our sister article to find out more about what activated charcoal does.
Why is activated charcoal used in toothpaste?
Activated charcoal has been used for a very long time as a natural toothpaste, as it has qualities which lend themselves to cleaning teeth.
It has a grainy texture, which means it can act as a natural abrasive. It physically removes staining on the tooth’s surface by polishing it away.
This is actually what most commercial whitening toothpastes do, although they use different abrasive substances like calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide.(2)
For this reason, it’s best to limit your use of charcoal toothpaste, perhaps switching in a different one between uses, to make sure you’re not wearing down your enamel too much.
Abrasives can wear down eroded tooth enamel more easily, so whichever toothpaste you use, it’s best to keep an eye on the state of your enamel.(3) This is even more important if you suffer from a tendency towards tooth decay.
It’s also worth noting that neither activated charcoal or regular toothpaste can get to internal staining, or stains which lie beneath the tooth’s surface. To tackle those kinds of stains, you would need to look at a professional whitening service with your dentist.
Does charcoal whiten teeth?
Due to its natural abrasive properties, it seems that activated charcoal does help remove external staining.
A 2019 study found compared charcoal toothpaste with a regular abrasive toothpaste. After four weeks, the study found that the charcoal toothpaste whitened the teeth more than the control toothpaste, although other compounds also showed whitening benefits.(4)
The study suggests that charcoal’s whitening effect comes from its ability to adsorb chromophores (molecules responsible for colour) within the mouth.(4)
A review by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society concluded that charcoal toothpaste may be most effective when used to prevent staining from reoccurring following a professional ‘scale and polish’. (2)
'Activated charcoal toothpaste may also have some benefits when it comes to preventing staining on your teeth.'
Types of charcoal toothpaste
When looking into charcoal toothpaste, keep in mind that the name can mean different things. It’s important to look at the ingredients.
Some commercial toothpastes offer a product ‘with charcoal’. Be sure to check the formulation. Often, the product is very similar to the brand’s other variants, but with a tiny amount of charcoal added for marketing purposes.
On the other hand, fully natural toothpastes may contain little more than pure activated charcoal with an ingredient like coconut oil to help bind it into a useable paste.
It’s also possible to brush your teeth with straight up organic activated charcoal powder and water, or to sprinkle a small amount over the top of your usual toothpaste.
With the latter two options, you can expect to see your teeth and gums go black during use! Tempting as it is to keep on brushing until the black powder has all disappeared, try not to overdo it as this can wear down your enamel.
Instead, try rinsing with water when you’re done.
Also bear in mind that the tiny particles of activated charcoal can be difficult to rinse away from fine lines and crevices, such as those found around fillings and dental restorations.
There may be some anti-microbial benefit to the residual charcoal, but the downside is that it may remain visible in your mouth.(3) If you’re aiming for pearly whites, you’ll want to be able to wash away all traces of the charcoal!
Pros of natural toothpaste
Many of us are more aware than ever before of the ingredients we put into our bodies. Oral hygiene is no different, and many people are looking for natural alternatives to commercial toothpastes.
Activated charcoal is often found in natural toothpastes as it is a good alternative to synthetic abrasives for people who prefer to avoid them.
Some people may also want to avoid other ingredients in commercial toothpaste for various reasons.
Toothpaste frequently contains a surfactant called sodium laurel sulfate (SLS). This compound is commonly found in all sorts of cosmetics, from shampoo to shower gel, and some people can be sensitive to it.
In fact, a 2003 German study found that in a trial of 1600 patients, 41.8% displayed an irritation reaction to SLS.(5)
Another study in 2012 found that patients with recurrent mouth ulcers reported significantly less pain when using an SLS-free toothpaste. The duration of the ulcers was also shorter.(6)
Using a natural, or SLS-free, toothpaste might help if you suffer from mouth ulcers, or are concerned about irritation.
If you’re keen to try a natural toothpaste because you would like to avoid chemicals or toxins, then make sure your new toothpaste is organic. That way, you can feel safe in the knowledge that no chemical nasties will turn up unexpectedly in your bathroom.
Cons to consider
One of the major things to consider when thinking about swapping to a natural toothpaste is fluoride. Typically, natural toothpastes do not contain fluoride, whereas most commercial toothpastes do.
It has been a controversial ingredient in the past as it has both pros and cons for your health.
The WHO released a report on the benefits and negatives of fluoride consumption in 2019. According to the report, fluoride can be hugely beneficial for dental health in both children and adults. This is because it delays the demineralization of tooth enamel and also interferes with the production of acid by bacteria in your mouth.
It’s so effective at protecting your teeth that many countries have made the decision to add it to drinking water.(7)
On the other hand, consuming too much fluoride can have adverse effects for your health. In high quantities, it can produce toxic effects. (7)
Children might also experience enamel fluorosis, or the appearance of white patches on their teeth, which some consider an aesthetic issue. It occurs in children as their teeth and bones are still developing.(7)
Bearing all this in mind, the WHO report does note that fluoride from dental products doesn’t actually contribute that much to your overall fluoride intake. In most parts of the world, the bulk of your fluoride intake will come from your diet.
Most dentists, along with the American Dental Association, recommend toothpaste with fluoride because of its ability to prevent tooth decay and protect enamel.(8) Toothpaste should be spat out after use and children should use a smaller amount.
As many charcoal and natural toothpastes do not contain fluoride, you may want to consider interchanging the two every so often to make sure you’re looking after your enamel.
The bottom line
There is some evidence that activated charcoal in toothpaste does have a whitening effect on your teeth – hooray!
However, make sure you’re looking after your pearly whites by keeping an eye on your enamel. Only use your charcoal toothpaste every so often to avoid wearing down the surface of your teeth too much.
You might also want to consider swapping in a toothpaste with fluoride as part of your routine as this will help keep cavities and tooth decay at bay.
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