Without a doubt, one of the most popular ingredients to emerge in the last five years is charcoal—specifically activated charcoal. Known for its detoxifying properties, activated charcoal first gained popularity in the wellness realm and was quickly co-opted by the beauty industry to offer external cleansing benefits (i.e., in the form of charcoal-infused shampoos and hair treatments, as well as a slew of face washes, toners, masks and deodorants).
It should come as no surprise, then, that the inky carbon has made its way to the dental care aisles, which got us thinking: Does charcoal toothpaste work? The short answer is yes, but only on certain stains (which we'll get into ahead).
Does charcoal toothpaste really whiten your teeth?
For starters, when talking about teeth whitening options, “it's important to understand that there is a difference between chemical teeth whitening and mechanical teeth whitening. Chemical teeth whitening uses chemicals to remove intrinsic or deeper stains, and mechanical teeth whitening uses abrasive ingredients that are added to toothpaste to remove extrinsic or surface level stains,” explains Harris.
Extrinsic stains refer to the discoloration that many of us experience from various lifestyle factors like “smoking and eating foods with dyes or drinking things that stain teeth like coffee, tea or red wine,” says Harris. “These kinds of stains are best treated with mechanical teeth whitening.”
That said, “in theory, activated charcoal's natural adhesive qualities let it bind to surface-staining culprits like coffee, tea, wine and plaque, to help remove them from your teeth. However, activated charcoal’s dental benefits stop at removing surface stains. If your teeth are naturally darker or yellow, you'll need to buy a product with a bleaching agent like hydrogen peroxide or try an in-office treatment,” advises Kantor.
Does charcoal toothpaste damage your teeth at all?
According to Kantor, it could, if used improperly. “When you brush your teeth with any material that has abrasive properties (like charcoal), you have to be aware of the potential effects it has on the gums and enamel. If the paste is too gritty it can damage the enamel or outer layer of your teeth, so you’ll want to avoid scrubbing it aggressively.”
Harris agrees, warning that “if you are not careful, the act of trying to whiten your teeth can actually make them more yellow as the enamel is worn away. The other risk that comes from charcoal is that it can irritate your gums and leave them slightly red or inflamed.”
Is there any benefit to using a charcoal toothpaste over a non-charcoal one?
“I recommend a charcoal toothpaste to remove surface stains only,” says Kantor. “It is difficult to actually whiten a tooth with just toothpaste, but those with charcoal can be pretty effective at removing superficial stains. That said, Kantor recommends treating it more “as a supplement to your regular toothpaste” (that is, one that has fluoride in it) and not in place of it. “We need to use a regular toothpaste in our daily regimen to fight dental decay,” he says.
TL;DR: Use a regular toothpaste twice daily and if you really want to use one with charcoal, use it sparingly (think: once a week or once every other week), similar to the way you’d approach exfoliating your face.
What are the pros of using a charcoal toothpaste?
They're effective at removing superficial stains caused by certain foods and drinks.
They offer an easy and more affordable way to whiten teeth without requiring a separate treatment.
They're a nice supplement to your regular dental routine.
They offer an alternative for people with sensitive teeth who can't tolerate brightening ingredients like hydrogen peroxide.
What are the cons of using a charcoal toothpaste?
They can be too abrasive if you use them too often (or too aggressively).
If they're overused, they can damage the enamel and/or irritate your gums.
They won't do much for deeper, intrinsic stains.
Bottom line: Does charcoal toothpaste really work?
“Yes, technically they do. Charcoal is an abrasive so when it’s added to toothpaste it will help to remove extrinsic stains caused by food and drinks that can stain teeth,” says Harris. But, again, because it bears repeating: Don’t overdo it. “The biggest risk with charcoal toothpaste is that they can be too abrasive and cause the wear down of enamel over time, which is the part of the tooth structure that makes our teeth white.”
To borrow another skin-care metaphor, think of your enamel as your skin barrier. Just as you don’t want to over-exfoliate your skin and cause inflammation, you don’t want to over-abrade your enamel and wear it down.
And if you’re feeling a bit wary about charcoal now, Dr. Harris is a proponent of bentonite clay. “It’s abrasive enough to whiten teeth but not so abrasive that it causes harmful side effects. The bigger benefit is that bentonite clay, which is currently being used in many beauty products, has detoxifying and antibacterial properties, which promote healthier gums, while whitening the teeth at the same time. As time goes on, expect to see more healthy whitening toothpaste options available, but for now, just be aware of some of the risks that come with activated charcoal toothpastes.
Shop some of our favorite charcoal toothpastes: Hello Activated Charcoal Whitening Toothpaste ($5); Colgate Charcoal Teeth Whitening Toothpaste ($5); Tom’s of Maine Charcoal Anti-Cavity Toothpaste ($6); Native Charcoal with Mint Fluoride Toothpaste ($10); Davids Natural Peppermint + Charcoal Toothpaste ($10); Kopari Coconut Charcoal Toothpaste ($12); Schmidts Wondermint with Activated Charcoal Toothpaste ($22 for pack of three)