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On Trend: Charcoal Toothpaste

written by Samantha Tillapaugh from The Debtist

Charcoal sure is getting quite the attention these days. It seems that this granulated, activated, ashy celebrity has stolen the spotlight. Instagram is ablaze with picture-worthy activated charcoal-containing foods, such as black scoops of ice-cream atop waffle cones, and seeded black hamburger buns on either side of a beef patty. This ‘coconut ash’ also has been praised to bind toxic drugs and chemicals in the body due to its negative charge, thus pulling out toxins before the stomach can digest them. (Someone has yet to start an all-charcoal diet.)

For similar reasons, bits of charcoal are also being integrated into beauty products in the effort to bind dirt and oils. I’ve seen humans who look like panda bears, mid-exfoliation. Pretty cute. And don’t think I didn’t consider for a moment the use of charcoal sticks in lieu of a water filtration system. In a crazed effort to eliminate plastic use completely while not being open to drinking unfiltered water, I myself fell down a charcoal-obsessed rabbit hole internet search. Drop a stick of charcoal in a jug of water, wait a few hours, and voila!

While I have nothing at all to say about any of these aforementioned things, (except maybe to note that charcoal ice cream temporarily stains your teeth the same color as the pint), I do have a few things to say when it comes to this much celebrated charcoal entering our toothpastes.

Why Put Charcoal in Toothpaste?

Have you seen videos of people brushing their teeth with black globs of sticky stuff and wondered to yourself, “Why put charcoal in toothpaste?” This is especially interesting after divulging the fact that a first date could be complicated by stained teeth from trying charcoal ice cream with a potential future life partner. What would brushing with charcoal before a first date do to you teeth?

Since activated charcoal can bind to things due to its micro-porous nature, it seems that some are of the mind that it can also bind plaque and bacteria and tartar. There is the added benefit of whiter teeth, as well. So, why don’t we dig deeper about these two topics?

Does Charcoal Like Bacteria?

Not any more than we do! Activated charcoal is porous in nature. The thinking behind removing bacteria with activated charcoal is that plaque and micro-organisms will be caught in the pores of the charcoal particles, and thus be removed. Possible, but it seems that it does this at a similar rate as regular old toothpaste would. So, no, there is no special binding relationship between the new celeb and our bacteria.

Does Charcoal Toothpaste Detoxify?

There isn’t much claim about the detoxifying nature of charcoal toothpaste. The gums and teeth are not at all similar to your liver and kidneys, which take on the job of clearing your body of toxins. Because of this, the charcoal in toothpaste is not exactly detoxifying your body of anything. Of the same token, for those who are using charcoal toothpaste and are concerned about the charcoal affecting your current medications, rest assured that the charcoal is not in contact with the medications in your digestive tract and therefore has no effect. Unless, off course, you are swallowing the toothpaste rather than spitting it out.

Does Charcoal Actually Make Teeth Whiter?

The simple answer is, “Yes it does”. Bizarre that you can brush with black to make them white! Charcoal is effective in removing surface stains, which isn’t exactly equated to whitening teeth. Surface stains are extrinsic staining on the teeth due to a coffee drinking habit, or the occasional red wine indulgence. These stains reside on the enamel layer which happens to also be the outermost layer of your tooth. Typically, other ‘whitening’ toothpastes remove these stains as well.

However, this isn’t to be equated with whitening teeth. Your teeth can also have intrinsic stains, either caused by trauma, certain medications, weak enamel, or excess fluoride use. These intrinsic stains cannot be removed by toothpaste, with or without charcoal, primarily because the toothpaste will never reach these stains. Whitening of intrinsic staining can only occur from bleaching treatments (whether that’s in-office or over-the-counter) that penetrate past the enamel. But if you wish to use charcoal toothpaste to help reduce stains due to a cold brew habit, then charcoal toothpaste will suffice.

Should We Be Wary of Charcoal Toothpaste?

Unfortunately, charcoal is abrasive. Part of what makes it so good at removing extrinsic stains is the fact that it is rough and can rub off discolorations that are stuck in the pores of your teeth (teeth are porous too!). However, the concern is that charcoal acts like sandpaper rubbing against your teeth. Anyone who has consumed or brushed with charcoal will know the grainy feeling it leaves in your mouth. Like sandpaper, repetitive use of the stuff can abrade parts of the outer enamel layer. The enamel is the strongest part of our bodies (stronger than bone!) and our teeth need it as protection. Removal of the enamel layer will weaken the tooth and cause hypersensitivity. You know those electrifying ‘zings’ you feel after a tooth whitening session? Imagine a permanent version of that if the enamel is removed. Yikes!

Ironically, too, the removal of enamel makes the teeth even more prone to staining for future years to come. Enamel is definitely something we want to protect. If you are planning on using charcoal toothpaste, then consider brushing lightly and gently.

Also, before you declutter your regular toothpaste, may I suggest alternating your charcoal toothpaste with the regular one? Like all trends, charcoal coolness may fade, and you may be once again reaching for your trusty familiar toothpaste brand. At the very least, the alternation will help reduce abrasion to your beautiful, pearly whites. Plus, most charcoal toothpastes do not have fluoride, a good protector of teeth. Fluoride is what helps fight dental decay, and as much as we want white teeth, I am sure you would agree that we want to KEEP our teeth even more.

Since charcoal is a recent celebrity, it is too early to tell what its really about. Better to wait until the tabloids (and research) unearth its true qualities before we fall head over heels for this new star.

The Debtist

Samantha Tillapaugh is a practicing general dentist in Orange County, CA and is a lifestyle blogger at thedebtist.com.