In the millennial-favorite Nickelodeon cartoon “The Fairly OddParents,” local heartthrob Chip Skylark has an iconic song: “My Shiny Teeth and Me.”
“My shiny teeth that twinkle, just like the stars in space!” Chip sings. “My shiny teeth that sparkle, adding beauty to my face!”
Indeed, the value of a bright smile — especially in the U.S. — is no secret. So it’s not surprising that when a new teeth whitening ingredient comes on the scene, there’s quite a bit of buzz.
But, as is common with super hyped ingredients, actually digging into the research around activated charcoal toothpaste reveals a more complicated story. There’s little evidence to support the use of charcoal to whiten teeth or freshen breath, and it might not even be that safe to use.
So before you get your hopes too high — or open your wallet — learn what activated charcoal actually does to teeth, and what else you can do to put the pearly back in your pearly whites.
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal (not to be confused with the charcoal you use on a grill) is a fine, black powder made by processing organic materials (like wood, coal, or coconut shells) in extremely high heat. This processing creates millions of tiny holes, making activated charcoal uniquely porous and abrasive.
Before we get any further we should say, there are a total of zero clinical studies on humans to back up claims that activated charcoal whitens teeth and it also isn’t approved by the FDA for teeth whitening purposes.
In fact, brushing with such a harsh agent can actually be counterproductive, damaging teeth and leading to more yellowing down the line.
“[It] may work for one person but can also do a lot of harm for the next. That’s because we all have different habits and also different needs,” says Dr. Zainab Mackie, DDS.
It can appear more effective than it really is
The stark difference between the look of teeth when they’re covered in black charcoal and once they’re rinsed clean could make you feel like your teeth are whiter than when you started, when there hasn’t actually been a change.
The theory goes that activated charcoal’s natural abrasiveness whitens teeth by scrubbing off surface stains while it’s porousness freshens breath by sopping up stray bacteria and particles in the mouth. (This is also why you’ll often see it marketed in charcoal soaps and beauty products as “toxin-absorbing.”)
While it stands to logic that an abrasive agent like activated charcoal could remove some types of extrinsic teeth staining, i.e. stains on the outer layer of enamel — and that it could make breath fresher by absorbing odorous mouth bacteria — it’s really not worth the long-term risk.
Our enamel — the outer layer of our teeth — protects our teeth, explains Mackie. “When you start to strip off that outer layer with harsh substances like charcoal, two things happen. First, you remove the white layer. Second, you remove the protective layer and your teeth become more sensitive.”
But not only that, the second layer — called dentin — is yellow. So once the white enamel thins out, the yellow dentin starts to show through, making your teeth look yellower, she says.
One 2017 literature review evaluated the research related to charcoal for oral use and found that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it’s safe or effective, and recommended for dentists to avoid using it in their practice.
A 2019 review also did not find enough scientific evidence to support charcoal’s whitening effect, but explained it could be used to remove surface stains on teeth with caution. Even the American Dental Association doesn’t recognize it as safe.
If you’re set on using activated charcoal for your teeth, here are some tips to help you do so (somewhat) safely.
1. Use it sparingly
Use activated charcoal toothpaste once or twice week at most and remember to brush gently. (For the record, there isn’t an agreed upon recommendation on this, since dentists think it should be avoided altogether.)
2. Alternate with a fluoride toothpaste
Many toothpastes with activated charcoal do not include fluoride, which is essential for protecting your teeth from decay! If you insist on using a charcoal toothpaste, says Mackie, make sure the toothpaste you use regularly contains fluoride.
3. Avoid it if you already have weak enamel
“If someone has a lot of cavities and consumes acidic drinks often then I would not even recommend it,” says Mackie. “It’s likely that their enamel is already too weak and charcoal will only cause more damage.
4. Talk to your dentist if you have restorations
It’s also unclear how activated charcoal interacts with dental restorations like veneers, crowns, or fillings.
There’s myriad options out there to whiten your teeth, from products at the drugstore to DIY concoctions. And everyone’s teeth is going to respond a little differently to each treatment.
Dr. Mackie explains that rather than hailing one product as a whitening miracle suitable for all, it’s best to tailor your tooth care to your needs. The best way to do this is to consult with a professional.
In-office bleaching and UV treatments
At the end of the day, the safest, most effective way to whiten teeth is to go to a licensed dentist for a professional whitening treatment.
This will typically entail the dentist bleaching teeth with a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide, perhaps in combination with a UV light for additional whitening power.
Like any treatment, the effectiveness will vary from person to person, depending on the condition of each person’s teeth and their genetics.
And while it’s largely safe to have a professional whitening treatment, some people do experience prolonged tooth sensitivity.
If you lack the time or money for a professional tooth whitening treatment, there are at-home options as well. Check out the American Dental Association’s seal of approval pages for whitening toothpastes and strips to be clear that whatever you buy is safe and effective.
Be sure to proceed with caution if you go with Whitestrips. Read the instructions carefully and don’t use them too frequently to avoid damaging and sensitizing your teeth.
To be clear, there aren’t any clinically proven DIY tooth whitening methods.
Oil pulling or brushing with baking soda could be worth a try. But keep in mind that these methods could also be harmful to your teeth, so it’s a good idea to stop if you start getting tooth sensitivity. Ask your dentist to make sure your at-home method is safe for your pearly whites.
Keeping your teeth healthy goes hand-in-hand with keeping them sparkly, and can help prevent stains from appearing from the start.
Keep up with brushing and flossing
Like Chip Skylark — the paragon of oral health — tells us in his song, it’s important to brush and floss daily to keep our teeth healthy and sparkly like his.
Go to your dentist regularly
The general recommendation is to get a cleaning and cavity check every 6 months. Time to pull up that calendar app!
Moderate acidic beverages
Coffee, wine, and soda are all culprits of enamel erosion. If you can’t stay away, Mackie tells us using a straw can help avoid the staining. Just make sure the straw is properly positioned behind your teeth.
While literally blinding the haters with our perfectly white teeth like Chip Skylark may be aspirational, it’s not normal or necessary. Keep in mind that no one is looking at our teeth as closely as we are in the mirror. So keep smiling.
And our parting advice is to talk to your dentist to find the best option for you rather than spending time and money — not to mention risking the health of your teeth — on overhyped products.