If you use social media, chances are you’ve scrolled past at least one video advertising the use of activated charcoal in the last year or so.
It’s a little bit jarring to see as it floats across your Facebook page or Instagram feed. The models and actors in the advertisements give a big smile as they smear large swaths of jet-back goop onto their teeth, seemingly priming their smiles to come out of the experience a dingy grey color.
Instead, when all is said and done they have a shiny, bright white grin thanks to the substance, which is just activated charcoal. It seems impossible, but the alternative tooth-whitening method has recently become all the rage — and so far, the reviews seem to be favorable.
Activated charcoal has been used as a health aid for generations, doing everything from lowering cholesterol to aiding in preventing deaths from overdoses or poisonings. Using it on teeth even dates back to past eras, but using it as a tooth whitener and not just a cleaner is relatively new to the western world’s health sphere. So just what is it — and how safe is it really?
What Is Activated Charcoal?
If you’re a big fan of barbecuing on your back porch, you may buck at the idea of rubbing charcoal all over your teeth.
The briquettes used to fire up some of your favorite foods may be made from some of the same base ingredients, but activated charcoal is a little different. It’s made by finely grinding a mixture of things like shells, bone char, coal, sand, and other materials, then processed using an extremely high level of heat to “activate” the substance.
The reasoning? The heat increases the size of the pores in the finely-ground substance, which makes it highly absorptive. That helps it grab on to the things you’re trying to pull away — such as the discoloration on your teeth.
How Does It Work?
If you’ve ever tried to clean a particularly dirty dish, there are two things you’d want to use — soap, which binds to the dirt and lifts it up, and an abrasive scrubbing brush to wear away at the food particles. Using nothing but a paper towel with some water probably won’t get your very far!
This is exactly what you do when you use a toothbrush and toothpaste to clean your teeth, but activated charcoal takes it a step farther. The large pores in the charcoal itself combine with the chemical properties of charcoal to bind to toxins and dirt and lift them away from your teeth. The charcoal does an effective job of removing stain-causing plaque and other discolorations sitting on the tooth enamel itself, leaving you with a whiter, cleaner smile.
It may seem counter-productive to use this grainy, pitch-black substance on your teeth to make them brighter. A lot of people see activated charcoal for the first time and feel pretty suspicious about how much the charcoal can actually do.
The chemical makeup of the activated charcoal combines with the porous nature of the substance to work like a super-toothpaste. The pores trap the layer of plaque on your teeth, pulling away the bits of dirt and food residue that remain using a basic toothpaste and often cause staining. The chemical makeup of the activated charcoal also bonds to the stains; according to research, the properties of the substance bond to toxins without becoming absorbed by your body itself. Since activated charcoal absorbs but cannot be absorbed, it grabs all of the bad and carries it out of your mouth when you rinse.
The American Dental Association hasn’t officially found the definitive proof of why activated charcoal works on teeth the way it does, but pharmaceutical journals have started to report that even without extensive evidence of why, it’s clear that the method works. And it’s not just a first-world fad, either; in parts of rural Africa where regular toothpaste isn’t readily available, it’s a common method of brushing teeth to keep them clean.