Charcoal-based toothcare products are having a moment, but is this a wellness trend you should get on board with? We asked a dentist for their verdict.
The humble fluoride toothpaste and garden-variety toothbrush have been your oral health staples for years, but you might be wondering whether it’s time to upgrade. Charcoal toothpaste and toothbrushes are the hot new trend in oral wellness, but just because something’s endorsed by celebrities on social media doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. To help you decide whether charcoal is worth a shot, let’s look at the evidence.
What are charcoal toothpaste and toothbrushes?
So what makes charcoal toothbrushes so special, anyway? They’re much like regular toothbrushes except they contain black bristles made of nylon blended with binchotan charcoal – a bacterial removing substance. Manufacturers claim these toothbrushes are resistant to microrganisms such as bacteria that can sometimes take up residence on a toothbrush.
By contrast, the popularity of charcoal toothpaste is based on the claim that roughly ground activated charcoal can scour away stains and deposits on teeth, as well as toxic substances. Sometimes it’s advertised as an aid for tooth whitening. A scientific review published in the British Dental Journal found that while it can’t bleach your teeth, it can remove surface staining which may result in a whiter smile.
Dentist Dr Sally Woods from McKeefry Dental says not many people ask her about charcoal toothpaste, but quite a few seem to be trying it out.
“One of the ways I have found out some of my patients are using charcoal toothpaste is they’ve come in for an exam and I’ll be looking at their gums and asking ‘what is all this black stuff that’s stuck underneath your gum tissue?’” says Dr Woods. “And I’ll be scraping it out and asking, ‘are you using a charcoal toothpaste?’”
Do they work?
According to a study in the Journal of the American Dental Association, there’s no proof that charcoal dental products are effective for teeth. Worse, there’s evidence that they may even be damaging, as the abrasiveness of charcoal could wear away the enamel on the surface of the teeth. That means the next layer of teeth, a yellow tissue called dentin, may be exposed, leaving your teeth appear more yellow.
The British Dental Journal review found most charcoal toothpastes don’t contain fluoride, an ingredient which is very powerful in preventing tooth decay. And in the toothpastes which do contain fluoride, it’s generally absorbed by the charcoal and therefore not effective.
Often charcoal toothpastes are labelled with words such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, making them appear to be a healthy option, however the British Dental Journal review found that they can contain substances called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which may be carcinogenic. The review also found when patients with periodontal disease used charcoal toothpastes, it could cause grey or black tissue discolouration.
Dr Woods does not recommend charcoal dental products.
“My personal opinion is no, I don’t think there is the clinical research to back up that they’re doing what people hope they are,” she says. “They’re really abrasive on the teeth and they also contain a lot of ingredients – it’s not just charcoal – that we wouldn’t be putting into other toothpastes without them having gone through [rigorous testing].”
Should you try it?
When it comes to toothpaste, you’re much better off going with a product containing fluoride – which strengthens tooth enamel and prevents tooth decay.
“If they are too abrasive they will remove enamel from the teeth,” she says. “The way that you know is, when you put the toothpaste in between your fingers or in your mouth, if it’s abrasive you can feel particles there – it’s gritty, whereas something that’s not abrasive is going to be smooth, more like a moisturiser.”
And as far as toothbrushes go, choose a soft-bristled one to make sure it won’t damage your gums or tooth surface. Dr Woods suggests also checking the brush is full of bristles and not too sparse.
“For somebody moving from using a medium or hard brush onto a soft one, they’ll probably feel like their teeth are still dirty because previously they’ve been brushing the plaque and bacteria off the teeth but also some of the enamel,” says Dr Woods. “A soft brush should still be moving the plaque and bacteria but it won’t be buffering up the enamel. It does take some time to adjust to not overbrushing the teeth.”