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By Joyce Kahng, DDS
A few years ago, when I started my dental Instagram page, I created a video explaining the potential dangers of using activated charcoal on your teeth. To this day, “How safe is activated charcoal?” remains one of the questions I’m asked most often.
Activated charcoal is having its heyday right now — you’ll find it in everything from beauty masks to juice drinks to deodorant.
Activated charcoal is created by oxidizing carbon-rich materials such as wood, peat, and coconut shells at high temperatures. The resulting material is abrasive, porous, and extremely absorbent, which is why it’s touted as a great way to extract toxins. (If you have a water filter, it likely contains active charcoal.)
In the dental realm, activated charcoal is most commonly marketed as a tooth-whitening agent. It comes in several forms, including toothpaste and floss, but is most commonly sold as a powder. You dip a damp toothbrush into the black powder and scrub the charcoal onto your teeth. Sure, it momentarily looks like you’ve been eating dirt, but the process is said to “detoxify” the teeth and lift away stains, leaving behind a brighter, whiter smile.
Many people who have tried brushing with activated charcoal powder are encouraged to find that their teeth do in fact look immediately whiter. That’s because scrubbing with abrasive charcoal can lift extrinsic stains — surface discolorations caused by things like coffee, tea, and red wine — from the outermost layer of the tooth.
However, behind that bright new smile, there lurks the very real danger of eventually stripping the tooth of its protective enamel layer. And that’s bad news for beauty seekers. Once that white outer layer of enamel is gone, a second,yellower layer, called dentin, will show through. Not only is dentin yellow, but it’s also much more difficult to whiten than enamel. Sometimes teeth can never be whitened the traditional way again. That’s the sad irony of activated charcoal: Users who achieve whiter teeth in the short term can be left with yellow teeth for life.
Proceed with caution! Using a toothbrush as a scrubbing weapon is never recommended, and when combined with the abrasiveness of activated charcoal, it can easily cause more damage than good to your smile. So be careful, and if you’re ever unsure about the safety of a product or process, ask your dentist what they recommend.
Dr. Joyce Kahng is a cosmetic dentist in Orange County, California. She’s very active on social media as @joycethedentist, sharing insights into her life as a female practice owner and debunking oral health myths. Follow her on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, or her blog.