The Science Behind Activated Charcoal: Does It Really Whiten Teeth?

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From bar soap to anti-acne skincare and drink additives, charcoal has infiltrated every inch of the beauty and wellness industry. So, it’s no surprise that the sink-staining ingredient is also infused in toothpastes to freshen and whiten our teeth, right? “[Charcoal] is being sold as a product that can ‘naturally’ remove stains from the surface of the teeth and make teeth appear whiter,” cosmetic dental surgeon at Eden Dental Aesthetics, Dr. Brandon Mack tells ESSENCE. “But it’s up for debate if it actually works.”

To find out if activated charcoal-filled toothpaste is really worth the purchase, read Dr. Mack’s insights below.

Where did the trend come from?

The viral detox ingredient is touted as a cure-all, medically used as an emergency treatment for poisoning and overdoses, due to its chemical-trapping pores (also used in filtration systems). In 2018, for one, Drake wrote, “I brush with activated charcoal before any club night,” clapping back at an Instagram comment saying his teeth didn’t look clean, according to Refinery29. “Social media helped introduce [charcoal] as a trend, but it wasn’t anything that a particular dentist or hygienist introduced,” Mack says.  Brands like Kendall Jenner’s Moon and Bite’s toothpaste alternative charcoal tabs associate the natural remedy with terms like “fluoride-free,” “ethically-sourced” and “no harsh chemicals” next to ingredients like calcium and mint. 

What does it do?

For dental hygiene, the crisis detox treatment-turned-teeth-whitener allegedly wears down and absorbs stain-causing molecules with its fine, abrasive texture and porous composition. Activated charcoal is made by heating carbon-rich wood, coconut shell, peat and petroleum at high temperatures without oxygen to “activate” the ingredient.

Does it really work?

“It may be used in some ‘holistic practices’ or by ‘holistic practitioners,’” he says. “But it’s not a professional dental product that can be purchased and used in a dental practice setting.” Unlike baking soda, which is proven to reduce plaque and whiten teeth, Dr. Mack debunks the myth that activated charcoal is an effective competitor. “I think [charcoal] gained popularity because, when you use it on your teeth, your teeth first look dark gray or black,” he says. “Once you wipe it off your teeth appear to be really white.”

Should I use it to whiten my teeth?

With the teeth whitening market projected to increase in size by almost 40% by 2030, according to a 2022 report by Astute Analytica, other dentist-approved options may be better in the long-term. “Activated charcoal isn’t that effective and a patient is putting themselves at risk of damaging their tooth enamel because of the abrasives of the activated charcoal,” he says. “Enamel is what gives our teeth a white appearance.” Instead, Dr. Mack recommends you book a professional whitening with your hygienist. But if you prefer to DIY, over-the-counter whitening strips may give you the efficacy you were looking for in the black toothpaste.

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