Myth busting: Charcoal Toothpaste

In this guest post, Dental student, Jenny, reveals the science behind charcoal toothpaste

Dental students during a clinical placement

In the last few years, a massive surge in commercially available brands of charcoal-based toothpastes has swept through UK retailers and taken the online market by storm. With its ecological, all-natural, all-organic outward appearance, only a fool would turn down the opportunity for a whiter smile and fresher breath. Sound too good to be true? Well, I’m afraid it is.

Research within the dental industry has concluded that the vast majority of charcoal toothpastes advertised to the general public are backed by marketing campaigns built on a cracked foundation of scarce scientific evidence, distinct absence of controlled clinical studies and multitudes of misleading information.

How charcoal toothpaste claims to work in advertising is as follows:

Fine powder activated charcoal in the toothpaste traps toxins, plaque and bacteria in its many pores, removing them from the enamel of the tooth surface, leaving a whiter smile. As well as that, charcoal toothpaste has both antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic properties by binding to and absorbing harmful microorganisms. Furthermore, charcoal removes the bacteria responsible for causing halitosis (bad breath), resulting in a fresher aroma.

Let’s debunk this statement.

First things first, activated charcoal toothpaste will very rarely contain fluoride. One review from 2017, found that only 8% of 50 charcoal toothpastes available online contained fluoride. Fluoride in toothpaste is a tried and tested method in increasing enamel remineralisation, increasing tooth strength and thereby decreasing risk of tooth decay. However, activated charcoal readily absorbs fluoride, rendering it inactive and unable to remineralise enamel. Therefore, charcoal toothpastes both with and without fluoride potentially increase a person’s risk of dental decay.

Secondly, when it comes to removing so-called “toxins”, there is no credible, supporting scientific evidence that charcoal applied directly to the teeth or gums provides any detoxification benefits. As well as that, there is a vacuum of data to support any claims that charcoal can adhere to all deposits (e.g. plaque, bacteria etc) on tooth surfaces.

As for that “whiter smile”, once again we see the reoccurring theme of product endorsement that is completely unsubstantiated and devoid of any supporting scientific evidence. There have been no adequately controlled clinical studies to support any cosmetic benefits (i.e. whitening) or health benefits (antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic). Supposedly, fine powder activated charcoal gently removes tooth surface stains by light abrasive forces. However, as of 2019 there has been no independent verification of manufacturers’ claims of low charcoal abrasivity. If anything, there is the distinct risk of a person frequently and vigorously brushing their teeth with charcoal toothpaste in order to achieve the desired whitening effect faster. This will in fact strip the tooth of the outer white enamel layer, exposing the inner yellow dentine layer, thus creating the opposite of the desired effect. Finally, there is no supporting scientific evidence that charcoal diminishes the causes of bad breath.

Overall, the popularity of charcoal toothpaste is not founded in its incredible therapeutic benefits, but instead in carefully and cunningly designed marketing campaigns. Campaigns that will continue to claim extraordinary health improvements, until proven wrong. Campaigns that utilise trendy buzzwords, a generation’s desire to be as natural, pure and eco-friendly as possible, and the nation’s desire for that Hollywood smile. Charcoal toothpaste is nothing more than a trendy fad, capturing consumers with inaccurate and borderline deceitful claims. Such questionable ethics would see any licensed, practising dentist reprimanded for misleading patients. Surely it is time that the marketing behind these fashionable oral healthcare products should be held to the same moral and ethical standards?

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