Dental products containing charcoal are touted as a natural cleansing and whitening agent, but research suggests the trend could be detrimental to oral health.

When most people think of charcoal, they think of firing up the grill in the summer. Recently, however, you may have seen this barbecue standby ingredient on the shelf at your pharmacy or promoted on social media. Charcoal has quickly become the new “it” ingredient in health and beauty products, infiltrating everything from shampoo to deodorant and promoted as a natural detoxifier. Charcoal binds to chemicals and dirt, but doesn’t mix with water, meaning that it doesn’t get absorbed by the body. The idea, though scientifically unproven, is that charcoal products will bind to oils and impurities in the body and thus flush them out. This concept has prompted a deluge of new charcoal dental products – from toothpaste to toothbrushes and whitening treatments.

While the idea of sporting a gritty black smile while brushing may not sound appealing to most, even major brands like Crest and Oral-B have cosigned the charcoal movement and incorporated the ingredient into their products. Complemented by influence from the likes of YouTube beauty reviewers and Facebook ads, the charcoal dental care trend has exploded. While the purported benefits of whitening and stain removal sound enticing, there is still a lot to learn about the ingredient as an oral care cure-all.

According to a study in the Journal of Physics: Conference series published in 2017 by scholars from the faculty of dentistry at the University of Indonesia, charcoal may be too abrasive an ingredient for everyday dental care. Thirty participants in separate control groups brushed their teeth with distilled water, a typical toothpaste and a charcoal toothpaste. After brushing, a surface roughness test was performed to evaluate the effect of each brushing agent on the tooth enamel. The researchers found that the charcoal group showed significant abrasion to the tooth enamel compared to distilled water and typical toothpaste.

Like everything else in life, charcoal products can be safe in small doses. Because of its abrasive nature, it may be effective in removing surface stains, but that abrasive quality can also be detrimental to the enamel, which can cause or worsen existing tooth sensitivity. As Benjamin Schwartz, an associate professor at Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College, told the Washington Post, “In general charcoal toothpaste to whiten teeth is okay in moderation, but not everyday use.”

Though it may not be as exciting or trendy as charcoal toothpaste, the proven way to keep teeth clean safely is regular flossing, brushing and dental visits. The scientific jury on charcoal is still out, so if you choose to use charcoal products, be sure to alternate them with traditional toothpaste in order to avoid enamel erosion. If whiter teeth or a more natural dental routine is your goal, consult your dentist for safe and healthy recommendations.