Illustration by Alex Citrin

Charcoal: Is It Legit?

In our “Is It Legit?” series, we weigh in on trendy topics in oral wellness, flossing fiction from fact so you know what to trust your mouth with.

By Tend

If you keep up with the latest wellness trends, you’ve probably heard about charcoal. In the last few years, it seems to have lent its pitch-black hue to just about everything: skincare, ice cream, lattes—and oral wellness products. We’ve seen charcoal show up in toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, and even the bristles of toothbrushes. But what’s it actually doing there?

We checked in with Dr. Marc Schlenoff, Head of Clinical Development at Tend, to get to the bottom of the charcoal trend.

The claim: activated charcoal helps you “detox”

Activated charcoal, the flavorless ingredient at the heart of the movement, is essentially a form of carbon that’s been treated to make its surface more porous. Theoretically, the holes on the surface of charcoal particles help them pick up and clear away other substances.

It’s why you so often hear the word “detox” in connection with charcoal. The idea is that ingesting it, washing your face with it, or even brushing your teeth with it helps draw out chemicals and impurities, leaving behind a flushed body, clearer skin, or, in your mouth, pearlier whites and fresher breath.

The reality: when it comes to your teeth, there’s no proof

“I went through the research,” explains Dr. Schlenoff, “and I couldn’t find one single solitary study that advocated for charcoal among independent, unbiased analyses.”

He’s not alone in that finding: according to a 2017 review from the Journal of the American Dental Association, there’s “insufficient clinical and laboratory data” to substantiate any safety or efficacy claims about charcoal in toothpaste.

Charcoal could be really bad for your chompers

Charcoal is abrasive, and there’s concern among dentists that, over time, exposing your teeth to it could wear away your enamel. “No matter how finely you grind up the particles it’s still abrasive,” adds Dr. Schlenoff.

A study presented at the 2015 Academy of General Dentistry Annual Meeting found that activated charcoal was more abrasive than traditional whitening toothpastes (and suggested it may not be that effective as a whitener).

Excess abrasion can actually lead to yellower teeth

The American Dental Association cautions that using overly abrasive materials on your teeth can actually make them look less white and more yellow. That’s because if you totally wear away your enamel, you’ll expose the layer below: dentin, a softer, less protected substance that (you guessed it) is yellow in color.

Been brushing with charcoal? Don’t panic

A single tube of charcoal toothpaste is unlikely to cause that much damage. That’s because when it comes to abrasion, “it’s cumulative,” assures Dr. Schlenoff. The longer—and harder—you brush, rinse, or floss with charcoal, the greater the risk.

And if you’re using charcoal mouthwash, consider safer alternatives

“It’s not worth the risk at all,” says Dr. Schlenoff. When it comes to fresh breath or whiter teeth, “there are much safer ways to achieve that result.”

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