So, you've heard people raving about using activated charcoal to whiten teeth and a whole load of other things. But does it really work, and how are you supposed to use it?
In the quest to make your teeth whiter, probably the last thing you'd think of is covering them in something black. Still, some people swear by this treatment as a natural way to get whiter teeth – and there's a good scientific reason why it does work.
Keep reading to find out what's so special about this type of charcoal and the different ways you can use it in your oral hygiene routine. We have also researched some of the best products available in the US to take the confusion out of buying this at-home teeth whitener.
Table of contents
How does charcoal whiten teeth?
First, let's be clear that this is NOT the same stuff that's left over after a bonfire or available in art shops.
Activated charcoal – also called activated carbon – has special properties because of the way it is produced. The activation process involves subjecting the charcoal to very high temperatures, either chemically or with steam. This creates tiny, low-volume pores throughout the material which give it a huge surface area.
Here you can see the steps involved with making activated carbon from coconut shells:
Amazingly, just one gram of activated carbon has the surface area of more than 11 tennis courts, thanks to its complex structure.
This surface area lets the charcoal adsorb large amounts of other substances (meaning they stick to the surface of it). Inside your body, it can whisk chemicals and toxins out of your system. When applied to teeth, it encourages plaque, bacteria, and other particles to cling to it so they are all rinsed off together.
Note that teeth-whitening charcoal can only remove stains from the surface of your teeth. These are often caused by deep-colored foods and drinks, including:
- red wine
- tomato sauces
Charcoal in any form won't make your teeth whiter than they naturally are. If your teeth are naturally quite yellow or have become discolored because of medication or a health condition, you'll need to try another form of whitening.
Is it safe?
It's completely safe to ingest small amounts of activated charcoal. It is commonly used to treat cases of poisoning as it is so good at absorbing toxins before they enter the blood stream. It is also featured on the World Health Organisation's list of essential medicines, so there should be no question over its safety.
Activated carbon is also used in a number of everyday products and processes such as water filters and the decaffeination of coffee. You probably make use of it every day without even realizing it.
When it comes to using it on teeth, some concerns have been raised about its abrasive nature. Charcoal is effective at removing surface stains on teeth, but there is also a risk that it will erode enamel, too. Our tooth enamel can't replenish itself, so it's not a good idea to keep scratching away at it.
As tooth enamel thins, the yellower inner layer of dentin starts to show through. So ironically, teeth whitening with an abrasive method can eventually lead to teeth becoming yellower.
Dentists warn against overuse of whitening toothpastes for the same reason. But, whereas traditional whitening toothpastes rely on brushing to be effective, charcoal pastes can “pull” some stains from the surface without brushing.
If you're worried about charcoal damaging your tooth enamel, you can always just apply a paste to your teeth and leave it for a few minutes. Then rinse thouroughly, and brush as normal with your regular toothpaste if you like. Minimize damage by only doing this once a week.
If you notice your gums becoming sore, switch back to your normal toothpaste for a while until they have recovered. Then you can resume applying charcoal – but perhaps do it less often.
Charcoal toothpaste generally doesn't contain added fluoride. Some people see this as a benefit as they want to avoid additives. But in actual fact, fluoride is added to most commercial toothpastes because it is effective at strengthening teeth and fighting decay. This is another good reason to alternate your charcoal toothpaste with a regular one.
You shouldn't use charcoal if you have any open wounds or ulcers in your mouth. If in doubt, speak to your dentist for a medical opinion. Also check with your dentist before use if you have any teeth implants, veneers or dental crowns. The materials used in these may be less resistant to staining from charcoal.
It's not safe to inhale the powder, so do be careful when you use it at home.
Using activated charcoal for teeth whitening
We've already established that you can't just pick up a bag of charcoal from your local petrol station and start rubbing it on your teeth. You can buy medically safe activated charcoal in several different forms from health food shops and online.
- Powders (both loose and in capsule form)
- Whitening strips
The tablets are primarily intended for ingestion to treat internal problems. You can, in theory, grind them up and add water to form a paste – but there are much less time-consuming ways to get the same result. Here is a quick overview of some of the products available, how to use them, and how effective they are:
Activated charcoal powder for teeth comes in tins or jars of 60-80g which should last for several months. The fine powder can be mixed with water or other ingredients for using on teeth (more on this below). You can buy it raw – just charcoal powder – or as a pre-mixed powder which contains other ingredients to help with whitening, breath freshness, and so on.
The best powdered activated charcoal in the US
If it's raw charcoal you're after, we recommend Zen Charcoal's food grade powder. They use hardwood trees grown in the US, and the powder is finely ground to make it suitable for a number of internal and external purposes, including tooth brushing and face masks.
One criticism of this product is the packaging, which some users found hard to re-seal once opened. As you can see, the powder is packaged in a pouch rather than a jar. It comes with a free scoop, but there is no guarantee this will be sitting neatly on top when you open it!
Other feedback is largely positive, though, and the manufacturer offers a 30-day money-back guarantee just in case.
For a blended charcoal powder, the clear winner in terms of online reviews is Active Wow. This powder contains bentonite and orange seed oil in addition to organic activated coconut charcoal. The additional ingredients help with remineralization, whitening, and anti-inflammation.
Users report quick results, even on teeth stained from coffee, tea, and smoking. “It doesn't give you the super white look, it looks natural and clean”, says one reviewer. “After 5 days, I'm stunned. My teeth are less sensitive, translucent spots are less noticeable or gone, and my teeth are shades whiter”, is the comment from another.
A handful of users do report problems with tooth or gum sensitivity, but this seems common to most products of this kind.
Another popular blended product is Tuxedo's natural and organic powder. This product is mixed with bentonite, baking soda, and lemon oil for extra whitening and freshness. The coconut shells used to make the charcoal are sourced in Sri Lanka and packaged in the US to food-grade standards.
The jar contains just 1.2 ounces, which is fairly small compared to others, but this should still last 2-3 months depending on how often you use it.
Reviewers say it has a gritty texture but it gets great results; many speak of improved confidence after using it for just a few days.
How to make homemade charcoal toothpaste
Some methods for using your homemade charcoal toothpaste include applying the toothpaste to your toothbrush and then brushing your teeth. That being said, this technique is not recommended by dentists. Charcoal is an abrasive mineral, and when scrubbed onto the teeth with a toothbrush, can actually do more damage than good.
The best use for activated charcoal is for maintaining the whiteness of tooth whitening treatments provided by your dentist. You can buy activated charcoal pellets from a health food store and crush them with a mortar and pestle, or use a few teaspoons of powder. Add a tiny bit of water and stir. Add more water (a little at a time) until you end up with the consistency of toothpaste.
Here's the important part: Use only your finger to gently rub the paste on your teeth. Then rinse your mouth with water, swish it around then spit it out — no swallowing! Store any leftover paste in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Put activated charcoal toothpaste on a brush
- Let the activated charcoal get rubbed into your gums
Remember, activated charcoal is very abrasive, a little bit goes a long way. Think of it as something to use weekly, not every single day.
Dr. Nammy Patel, Green Dentistry, SF
Some people prefer to mix the charcoal with coconut oil because of its anti-bacterial properties.
If you use a pre-mixed toothpaste containing activated charcoal, teeth whitening becomes much less messy. You simply apply it to your toothbrush as you would with your regular toothpaste. Some people also prefer a toothpaste because of the familiar taste and texture.
FineVine Activated Coconut Charcoal Toothpaste is a popular product made with all-natural ingredients. As well as coconut charcoal it contains coconut oil, baking soda, and peppermint oil.
This product is made in the US and comes with a satisfaction guarantee. There is mixed feedback on the taste – one user comments that it tastes better than their normal toothpaste while another says it tastes like clay.
There is no fluoride in the toothpaste, which could be a pro or a con depending on your preferences.
Generally, the product receives great feedback and even charcoal whitening skeptics are convinced by the results. Take care with pre-mixed toothpastes. Check to see if the concentration of charcoal is weaker before using on a toothbrush, but if you are still worried about damaging your teeth, apply it with a finger instead.
Our guide to natural toothpastes has more details about charcoal toothpaste and some other natural options you might like to consider – both store-bought and homemade.
You can also read all about the best whitening toothpastes, including the best charcoal option in our full guide here.
Charcoal toothbrushes are not actually made from the mineral itself, but the bristles are infused with it. The brush, therefore, takes on some of the adsorption properties to pull bacteria and plaque from your teeth.
There is no scientific evidence to show that these toothbrushes are more effective at cleaning and whitening, especially over time. Again, use caution when using any sort of toothbrush combined with charcoal.
Many varieties come with an eco-friendly, biodegradable bamboo handle, which you can read more about here, but plastic handles are also available. You can even get a charcoal fiber toothbrush head to fit an Oral-B electric toothbrush!
Activated charcoal whitening products comparison
Below you’ll find a table to summarize and compare all the products we’ve discussed in this article.
|Raw powder||Powder blend||Toothpaste|
|Recommended brand||Zen Charcoal||Active Wow||FineVine|
|Unit size||8oz or 40oz||59ml||4 oz|
|Pros||Food grade, good value, fine texture||Good results, has remineralizing properties||All-natural ingredients, fresh taste|
|Cons||Messy, packaged in a pouch||Messy to use, may cause sensitivity||Can be messy, no fluoride|
You can use activated charcoal on your teeth in the form of a powder, toothpaste, or strip. There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these products, so experiment to see what works best for you.
Keep in mind that that the only way to get your teeth whiter than their natural shade is with teeth bleaching. Many dentists offer professional teeth whitening in-office, but for a cheaper option, home whitening kits can produce good results.
Above all, remember that the best way to keep your teeth clean and healthy is to visit your dentist and hygienist regularly. If you have any underlying oral health issues, any whitening treatment may aggravate them and cause pain or sensitivity.