What’s the Real Story Behind Using Activated Charcoal to Whiten Teeth?

March 12, 2019 Updated: March 13, 2019

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?

Charcoal Whiten Teeth
Illustrate (Andasea/Shutterstock)

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.

girl brush teeth with charcoal
Illustration (Vladimir Gjorgiev/Shutterstock)

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.

charcoal toothpaste
Illustration (VICUSCHKA/Shutterstock)

Is It Safe?

The idea of walking into a room and flashing a pearly white smile is tempting for many, especially if you routinely consume substances such as coffee that are known to heavily stain teeth.

Something like charcoal, though, which is so commonly used to barbeque and not considered food for human consumption, can seem like a potential health risk. Adding a new element to your health routine is never fun when it produces unpleasant side effects.

From a toxin standpoint, though, activated charcoal is perfectly safe. People have been using it as an antidote for various maladies for centuries, and the good news is that it doesn’t pose a chemical health risk. People can even consume it; since it can’t be absorbed by the human body, it traps toxins ingested and then carries them out through either bile or feces later.

What makes it potentially unsafe, rather, is using it too frequently for things like teeth whitening. While it may seem like the kind of thing you’d want to use every day, activated charcoal on your teeth should only be used occasionally.

The method of activating the charcoal to make it more capable of absorbing the various plaque build-up on your teeth help you whiten your smile rather quickly, but using it too often can start to rob your teeth of necessary protective layers.

Because activated charcoal is so porous, it’s also fairly abrasive. A number of companies have started to sell activated charcoal toothpaste, but using it on a daily basis can wear down not just the plaque on the teeth but their enamel, too.

Teeth don’t re-grow, so this leaves our pearly whites exposed to potential wearing down over time. Once the enamel is gone, it never comes back — so as dentist Dr. Steven Lin explained in his blog, once the soft part of your tooth is exposed by the worn away enamel you run the risk of faster dental deterioration. White teeth are great, but not at the cost of having no teeth at all!

Ultimately, though, using something like this in moderation seems to have been given the thumbs-up. And since it’s all-natural, you can feel good about it, too!