Activated charcoal is among the more common home tooth whitening methods recommended, but does it really work?

An article recently published on the New York Magazine website says that there is a dentist approved charcoal whitening powder. While it brings up a lot of interesting details, here is the information that your West Nyack dentist wants to share.

The Theory behind Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal has long been used for its ability to bind with organic compounds, especially toxins. Charcoal does this because it is porous and can literally trap organic compounds inside it. Among the compounds it can absorb are tannins, which are common staining molecules found in tea, coffee, red wine, and other staining foods and beverages.

The theory is that charcoal can absorb the tannins–and potentially other staining molecules–drawing them out of tooth enamel and thereby whitening the teeth.

Is Activated Charcoal Safe for Teeth?

A pile of activated charcoalActivated charcoal isn’t acidic, so it won’t dissolve teeth. It’s also relatively soft (1-2 on the Mohs scale of hardness, compared to a 5 for tooth enamel), so it won’t abrade or scratch teeth during brushing.

However, the grittiness of most activated charcoal can be irritating and damaging to gums. This can lead to receding gums and isn’t recommended. Besides, the action of the charcoal is supposed to be entirely chemical, so there’s no need to brush with it. Just put it in the mouth for a little while, then rinse and spit (or swallow–it’s harmless and might save your life if your spouse is secretly poisoning you!)

Does Activated Charcoal Work?

This is the $64,000 question, and one we don’t have a good answer to. The truth is it probably doesn’t work. Despite the fact that it can absorb tannin molecules, we don’t know that it has a powerful enough draw to pull tannins out of the enamel. It’s highly unlikely that it does.

The ineffective nature of activated charcoal on teeth whitening is attested to by this beauty blogger, who used it every day for a week and saw no results.

But what about this other beauty blogger who saw great results from activated charcoal? That’s pretty easy to explain: she was also rinsing with peroxide, which is known to be effective for teeth whitening and was probably responsible for the results.

Another potential variable here is that the two bloggers were using different grades of activated charcoal. Activated charcoal has different grades of ability to absorb staining molecules (called its molasses or caramel number because it’s often rated by testing its ability to draw stain molecules out of these sugars). But this number isn’t often posted on most activated charcoal you can buy, so you don’t really know how effective the charcoal you’re buying is.

In the end, this beauty fad is probably like many others: it stays around on the strength of anecdotal evidence because it hasn’t been disproven yet.

If you are looking for proven ways to whiten your teeth or improve other cosmetic problems, please call (845) 627-7645 for an appointment with a Rockland County cosmetic dentist at B & D Dental Excellence in West Nyack.