Activated charcoal has quickly become a trendy, go-to ingredient in myriad DIY skin and beauty recipes. The porous substance is touted as a clarifying, decontaminating agent that sucks out toxins and leaves you healthier, glowier and prettier.
Sounds cool, but I can’t help but ask myself, “Does it really work as well as everyone says?”
If Pinterest is any testament–and I argue that it totally is–one of the most common uses for activated charcoal at the moment is teeth whitening. Supposedly, activated charcoal is so powerful that it’ll give you super-white teeth in just one use and, over time, you may reach levels of teeth so white you can see them from outer space (note: you can’t really see teeth from outer space, nor can you actually see the Great Wall of China, I’ll have you know).
Regular charcoal – and we’re even talking about those burned up chunky logs in your fireplace – contains a whole host of impurities. It’s not as porous, and it’s pretty disgustingly covered with stuff you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth. Ever. Blech.
Activated charcoal (also called activated carbon) on the other hand, is really just charcoal (burned stuff) that’s been treated with a few gasses to purify it completely and turn it into a powerhouse of porous material that sucks in impurities from the environment around it.
This “sucking in” is a very rough way to describe what it actually does, which is adsorb materials. Adsorption is different than absorption, and what it basically means is that the porous surface of activated charcoal attracts (mostly unwanted) material a bit like a magnet and holds it in its pores. This leaves the area around it clean.
Activated charcoal isn’t just used for teeth whitening, though. It’s stocked in many emergency rooms, ready for people who’ve overdosed on things like drugs and alcohol. In fact, you should never, ever take activated charcoal with your prescription medication, because it WILL render your medication inert and totally useless.
Any good water filter will use activated charcoal as one of its filtering methods. AND, it’s a pretty well-known home remedy for avoiding a hangover if you sail a little close to three sheets to the wind (but you have to take it before you go to bed, or it won’t work).
Many people take activated charcoal often, to “detox,” but the jury’s still out on whether or not it also adsorbs things like vitamins and vital nutrients, so – personally – it’s not something I would take internally on a regular basis.
But how does it work on your teeth?
The answer is: Activated charcoal LOVES tannins.
And tannins (found in MANY foods, coffee, tea, wine, etc., and ad nauseum) are typically what cause staining and dinginess of the enamel of your teeth. It loves the tannins, and the tannins love it more than they love your teeth, so off they’ll go. Hopefully.
However, and here’s the good part, activated charcoal doesn’t adsorb the calcium salts tooth enamel is made of. It’s almost like it was made to whiten. And brighten. And do no harm.
What The Dentist Says
I decided to reach out to Dr. Jessica Emery, DMD and owner of Sugar Fix Dental Loft in Chicago, She specializes in cosmetic dentistry, so she knows a thing or two about getting perfect, pearly whites.
I was particularly curious about Dr. Emery’s opinion on a) whether this could potentially work and b) if there were any health concerns I should factor in. She was full of wisdom!
“With any trend, one of the first things that comes to mind is how safe is it when swallowed,” says Dr. Emery. “An important factor here is you must never use just any type of charcoal–it must be ‘activated charcoal’ since it is purified and made especially for use in medicine.”
In fact, Dr. Emery explained that using activated charcoal as a medicinal agent “dates back to 1550 BC and is commonly used to treat poisonings, preventing their absorption.” They still use activated in hospitals today, most commonly for alcohol and other poisonings.
As for whitening teeth? Dr. Emery says that activated charcoal may have a similar effect on your teeth over time.
“[Activated charcoal] is shown to be attracted to a group of found compounds known as tannins,” she says. “Tannins can be found in common stain inducing items like wine or coffee, for instance. In theory, this is why many people are turning to brushing with activated charcoal.”
Ultimately, activated charcoal may potentially work over time, but don’t expect anything fast and impressive. You certainly won’t be “turbo whitening” your teeth in a matter of minutes, that’s for sure.
Dr. Emery also stresses that, should you choose to employ DIY treatments when it comes to dental care–to understand “that no matter how well an at-home treatment can work, these holistic remedies can and will never replace flossing or brushing and the need to visit your dentist for routine check ups and cleanings.”