Remember when barbeque grills were the first thing you thought of when you heard the word charcoal? Oh how naïve we were. Nowadays the black stuff (in its activated persona, not the same stuff dad uses on the Fourth of July) has made its way into everything from supplement pills to face masks thanks to its detoxifying powers that purportedly enable it to grab onto everything from dangerous chemicals (it’s used in some hospitals to treat poisonings) to dirt and oil. So it’s hardly a surprise that people have also latched onto the seemingly paradoxical idea of applying charcoal for cleaner, brighter teeth. But is this internet miracle product really all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to your pearly whites?
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What Is Activated Charcoal?
As you may have heard, activated charcoal is essentially a form of carbon that’s been treated to make the surface of its particles porous. All of those little nooks and crannies act like magnets for other particles, which it absorbs and then sweeps away when the charcoal is washed off. “Activated charcoal toothpastes are a rebirth of ancient medicine techniques. In theory, [it] binds to everything in its path—stains, tartar, bacteria, viruses (and maybe even your tonsils),” explains cosmetic dentist Peter Auster. All of which sounds ideal in a tooth cleanser, but not everyone is sold on the idea.
So, Should You Put Charcoal In Your Mouth?
For starters, there are concerns about the abrasiveness of charcoal, which some say could damage enamel if used regularly, as well as charcoal’s tendency to absorb all sorts of things it comes into contact with, including good things like medications. Others argue that charcoal isn’t specifically bad for teeth, it simply won’t do much for your teeth in the longterm since the active ingredient is only in contact with the tooth surface for a short time. Still, charcoal tooth treatments have found plenty of proponents who say that a regular coating of the stuff whitens their teeth and kills off bad breath causing bacteria.
The reality, as it so often is, may be somewhere in the middle. “I recommend a charcoal toothpaste to remove surface stains but not to whiten teeth,” says cosmetic dentist Gregg Lituchy, adding, “It is difficult to actually whiten a tooth with any toothpaste, but those with charcoal do remove surface stains effectively.”
“It is difficult to actually whiten a tooth with any toothpaste, but those with charcoal do remove stains effectively.”
So what’s the difference between removing surface stains and whitening? Surface stains, also known as extrinsic stains, come from the usual suspects: coffee, red wine, tobacco, and dark colored foods. They live on the enamel layer and can generally be removed with toothpastes or surface whitening treatments. Deeper, intrinsic stains are dark coloring that comes from within the tooth, sometimes as a result of trauma, weak enamel, certain types of medication, and even overuse of fluoride. Think of these as the underlying color of your teeth; no matter how dedicated you are to whitening the surface, a major lightening of tooth color can only come from bleaching treatments that penetrate below the outer surface of teeth. All of which is to say that a brush with activated charcoal can definitely go to town on the signs of your coldbrew habit, but it will never equal what an in-office whitening treatment can do.
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What’s The Deal With Detoxing?
As for those claims of “detoxifying” the mouth, while charcoal can lift away plaque and food particles that lead to bad breath, the effect won’t be much more dramatic than what you’d get with any other toothpaste. Unlike your liver and kidneys, the teeth and gums don’t operate as a detoxifying function of the body: so-called toxins aren’t generally hanging out there, so there’s not much point in purging them. And while charcoal can absorb medications when it comes into contact with them in the digestive tract, provided you’re rinsing out your charcoal treatment rather than swallowing it, there’s very little chance of the activated charcoal on your teeth effecting your prescriptions.
If you’re looking to work charcoal into your whitening and breath-freshening routine, try brushing with a charcoal-based paste or subbing in a toothbrush with charcoal-infused bristles every other day to strip away food and drink stains. Since very little study has been done on the abrasive effects of charcoal on teeth, Lituchy advises erring on the side of caution and brushing the paste on very gently to avoid wearing down the enamel which can ultimately make teeth look darker. Speaking of enamel, don’t go throwing out your regular toothpaste just yet. “Activated charcoal can be used as a supplement to brushing with regular toothpaste for people who are seeking a whiter smile, but it cannot be used in place of it,” says Lituchy. “Regular toothpaste gives us the fluoride we need to fight dental decay so it’s necessary to keep it as part of a daily regimen.”
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