I Tried a Charcoal Toothbrush to Whiten My Teeth—Here’s What Happened
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If you’re like me and wore braces as a kid, you probably pride yourself on having straight teeth. All those years of monthly orthodontist visits to tighten and loosen screws, replace metal, and deal with tooth pain were not in vain. (I clearly did not have Invisalign.)
Courtesy Lizette Borreli
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is not the charcoal used for barbecues, despite looking similar. “It’s typically made of coal, coconut shells, olive pits, and other materials,” says Lana Rozenberg, DDS, a cosmetic dentist at Rozenberg Dental NYC in New York. “It is then reheated, which oxidizes and activates it.”
When activated, it becomes more porous, which many activated charcoal products claim is what allows it to remove plaque and bacteria.
Choosing a charcoal toothbrush
There are many activated charcoal dental products out there, including toothpaste and toothbrushes. I opted for a charcoal toothbrush versus charcoal toothpaste because it seemed like a less messy alternative to getting whiter teeth.
Charcoal toothpaste is known for turning your mouth black as you brush and can potentially leave gray stains on your teeth (eek!).
I chose Dental Expert’s Soft Charcoal Toothbrush family five pack ($9). At the time, it was the most inexpensive option, came in a variety of colors, and gave me more bang for my buck.
Activated charcoal bristles
Charcoal toothbrushes have distinctive bristles. They’re infused with activated charcoal, which gives them a black, smoky appearance. This eliminates the messiness of some types of toothpaste that require you to rub charcoal powder across your teeth before you brush.
The idea behind these coated bristles, says Dr. Rozenberg, is that when you brush your teeth, the bacteria get trapped in the bristles rather than spread around in your mouth. (More on its antimicrobial claims later.)
In most activated charcoal brushes, the bristles are thinner at the top than at the base, says Henry Hackney, DMD, a dentist in Chicago and a member of the American Dental Association (ADA). The soft, thin bristles may be ideal for people with sensitive enamel, says Dr. Hackney.
“Due to its increased softness and thinness, the [soft] bristle does not damage your teeth and can do its job without causing any pain.”
Courtesy Lizette Borreli
My 14-day trial: Using a charcoal toothbrush
My first day using a charcoal toothbrush was decidedly uneventful. My teeth didn’t look or feel any different. In fact, after using my Oral-B electric toothbrush for so long, I felt as if I wasn’t doing a good enough job brushing my teeth. The charcoal toothbrush was lightweight, simple, and sleek. But it was also nondescript, with the exception of its bristles and its black and blue grip.
Now I know it takes time to tell whether a product works, but I couldn’t help thinking that a special toothbrush would wipe away all my lingering coffee, tea, and wine stains after every brush.
At the time, I also started to use Sensodyne Pro-namel Intestive Enamel Repair, recommended by my dentist due to my increased teeth sensitivity. Note: This was about two weeks before I started my experiment. The promise of a toothbrush with soft, thin bristles, and this toothpaste left me with high hopes of reclaiming my dental health. Also, I always make sure I floss and do my best to use mouthwash before going bed. Roughly, this routine takes about five minutes.
One week later, and I would like to think I saw improvements, but I suspect I was experiencing a kind of placebo effect. My lower front teeth—which are prone to staining—looked a little whiter. Could it have been the bathroom lighting? A cleaner bathroom mirror? Or maybe I was just flossing and brushing better to convince myself the charcoal toothbrush is working. Whatever the reason, I did notice the tip of the bristles seemed more faded. This could mean the activated charcoal was wearing off.
I continued to use the toothbrush, once in the morning and once in the evening for the entire two-week experiment. By day 14, my brushing was gentler and my gums seemed grateful for it. My actual teeth weren’t actually whiter, though maybe more stain-free.
To be honest, I was glad to go back to my electric toothbrush because I personally feel it provides me with a deeper cleaning than a manual toothbrush. However, the ADA says both a manual and electric toothbrush work the same to remove plaque.
Activated charcoal products are a mixed bag
Activated charcoal dental products are still around, probably because they’ve grabbed the attention of many people, including celebrities, like Gwyneth Paltrow who gave it her GOOP seal of approval.
But, do they actually really work? If you go on any brand’s website and check reviews for charcoal toothbrushes, you’ll see a mix.
For example, with the Dental Expert’s Soft Charcoal Toothbrush, one Amazon reviewer writes: “These are great toothbrushes! They are very soft but still sturdy enough to do a good job of cleaning. I especially appreciate the head size. So many toothbrushes have such a large head that I have trouble moving them around in my mouth without scraping my gums. My mouth feels squeaky clean after using these toothbrushes, and my teeth do appear to be a little whiter. This 5 pack is a great value, too.”
Like me, this reviewer notices the bristles are extremely soft and the toothbrush itself is gentle around the gums. But what about promoting whiter teeth? Research suggests these activated charcoal products fall short on their numerous claims.
What the science says
A review of studies, published in 2017 in the The Journal of the American Dental Association, suggests there’s no conclusive evidence to support the claims of these products, such as being antibacterial and whitening teeth. There’s no evidence that they’re safe or effective for your teeth; they can be abrasive and leave teeth looking more yellow, according to the ADA.
Dentists like Dr. Rozenberg agree there’s a lot more that needs to be known before its recommended for dental use.
“A lot about charcoal toothbrushes is unknown—there’s not a lot of scientific evidence on its benefits or negative implications,” she says.
The type of toothbrush dentists recommend
To be sure the toothbrush you choose is safe, effective, and won’t damage your teeth, choose one with the ADA Seal of Acceptance. (The seal also applies to toothpaste, water flossers, white strips, and electric toothbrushes.)
Currently, activated charcoal toothbrushes do not have the ADA Seal of Acceptance. You can visit the ADA’s “Seal Product Search” to verify whether your product meets the ADA’s standards for dental use.
Look for a soft-bristled toothbrush, says Lara Seidman, DDS, a general dentist at Fountainhead Dentistry in Hagerstown, Maryland. “The purpose of a toothbrush is to remove plaque bacteria that have adhered to the tooth surface,” she says.
Toothbrushes with soft bristles are sufficient to remove plaque build-up without damaging the enamel. Hard bristles can lead to enamel erosion “similar to that seen in abrasive toothpaste, like smoker’s toothpaste [toothpaste that removes brown tobacco stains], or charcoal toothpaste.”
If you have build-up that can’t be removed with a soft bristled brush, it most likely needs to be removed by a dental hygienist, says Dr. Seidman.
Regardless of the toothbrush you choose, you should replace your toothbrush every three to four months, or when it starts to wear and tear.
Activated charcoal dental products may sound alluring, but they may end up doing more harm than good in the end. Activated charcoal is abrasive, but if you’re still curious, use it sparingly, suggests Dr. Seidman. “Beware of the potential consequences, especially enamel abrasion.”
You can also consult your dentist to talk more about the use of these products. Or, you can discuss the potential of in-office teeth whitening treatments if you want to whiten your teeth.
As for me, I went back to using my electric toothbrush. I still have some charcoal toothbrushes left from my experiment. I may use them sporadically if I’m in between toothbrush replacements; otherwise, they live inside my storage closet. When it comes to maintaining good dental hygiene I follow three simple rules: brush your teeth (at least twice a day), floss, and visit your dentist twice a year.
- Lana Rozenberg, DDS, a cosmetic dentist at Rozenberg Dental NYC in New York
- Henry Hackney, DMD, a dentist in Chicago and a member of the American Dental Association
- Journal of the American Dental Association: "Charcoal and charcoal-based dentifrices: A literature review"
- American Dental Association: "Toothbrushes"
- Lara Seidman, DDS, a general dentist at Fountainhead Dentistry in Hagerstown, Maryland
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Use & Handling of Toothbrushes"