Charcoal Teeth Whitening
I, like many of you, have seen the advertisements floating around on Google and Facebook promoting this new craze in teeth whitening. The number of videos circulating with people smearing black smudge all over their teeth and then revealing a dazzling pearly white smile seem to be everywhere. So, what exactly is this substance and why is it such a craze? Does it work? Is it safe? These are but a few of the questions I have received about this new so called “miracle whitener”.
So, let’s start at the beginning. What is the “black substance” being so heavily praised? The compound is activated charcoal. We all know what charcoal is, but how does it become activated and what does that actually mean for teeth whitening? The process of activating charcoal involves either treating the charcoal with specific chemicals or through high steam heat that changes the surface composition of the charcoal (which is basically just highly packed carbon). These surface treatments create porosities (small holes) in the charcoal that are meant to trap toxins and poisons. Historically, this substance has been used as a medical treatment to help those suffering from a variety of toxicities (i.e. alcohol overdose). The charcoal binds the excess toxins and the body then naturally removes them. Where did dentistry come in to play? The theory (and I emphasize the word theory here) is that these porosities created by the activated charcoal bind and remove different stains that are embedded in the surface of the teeth. The biggest and most pressing question is,” does this stuff actually work?”. The answer is, like anything: it depends. As with any type of abrasive in a dental product, the goal is to remove stains from the teeth, but these are only superficial and are likely to only be effective for a very short period of time, if at all. Traditional whitening methods using hydrogen or carbamide peroxide in trays (or strips) have the ability to remove stains that are embedded deeper into the enamel. This cannot be achieved by a superficial method, such as charcoal or toothpaste. This does not mean to say activated charcoal cannot work, but the results being touted by the companies attempting to make the sale, are yet to be proven.
The next most common question I receive about this topic is regarding its safety. The large majority of the companies selling activated charcoal are claiming it is “all natural”. The term “all natural” is thrown around very loosely these days. We’ve all seen it plastered on our food at grocery stores claiming the nutritional benefits of Company X’s food over its competitor. The FDA, by sticking to the definition of all natural to mean using components that are of the earth, really leaves a lot of wiggle room for these companies. This is great for them and not so great for us. The companies manufacturing activated charcoal are no different. They are free to treat and process the charcoal ingredients with little to no oversight from the FDA. Does this mean the product is unsafe? Not necessarily. It simply means that “all natural” is a very vague term with a significant amount of latitude. It’s true efficacy and benefit is left to the opinions of the consumer.
So what’s the take home message here? The message is that there will always be a new trend, even in healthcare. This does not mean they do not have a place in medicine, dentistry, etc. What it means is that it is up to your healthcare provider to stay on top of these trends and research their risks and benefits so as to better inform the public. As patients, it is always wise to consult with your healthcare providers, prior to engaging in a new treatment modality, especially those that have yet to be adequately researched.