Ugh! In eighteenth-century London, most people brushed their teeth with a combination of chimney soot and salt. Over time, more functional and better-tasting toothpaste was developed, with active ingredients like fluoride (to fight dental decay) and potassium nitrate (to diminish sensitivity). But these days, it seems that soot has made a major comeback.

Open Facebook or YouTube or walk into a Sephora and you’ll be bombarded with face-masks, supplements, and cleanses, all touting the benefits of charcoal as an ingredient. Toothpaste has been the latest personal care product to jump on the charcoal bandwagon, and a wave of trendy new “detoxifying” black toothpastes in chic packaging has just hit the market, promising to give you a whiter smile.

But what is charcoal? Most commonly used in water purification, activated charcoal is a form of carbon that has been heated to very high temperatures to make its surface porous. The little holes on its outer layer can absorb all sorts of substances, which can then be removed along with the charcoal.  (This is why activated charcoal can be used medically to treat cases of acute poisoning.) These new toothpastes typically contain charcoal, baking soda, flavoring, and preservatives. On the surface, it sounds like a good way to remove stains and bacteria from your mouth, right?

Well…maybe. Charcoal toothpaste is indeed abrasive, making it quite effective at removing surface stains — like those caused by a serious coffee habit — and giving you an instant boost to the brightness of your smile. But that abrasiveness could roughen and wear away at the enamel and lead to sensitivity if used regularly. When the enamel is weakened, the teeth will actually yellow more quickly and be more susceptible to unsightly decay. Furthermore, it can’t touch the deeper, intrinsic stains within the teeth; for those, an actual bleaching treatment is needed to penetrate the outer surface. Some dentists have also reported that long-term use of charcoal toothpaste can stain the margins, or edges, of previous dental work, leaving patients with little black lines around their fillings, veneers and crowns. Not pretty! If you are truly set on incorporating a charcoal toothpaste into your routine, we would recommend erring on the side of caution and using it gently and occasionally – ideally no more than a few times a week – and sticking to a traditional, fluoride-based toothpaste for your daily oral care.

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