You’ve probably seen ads for charcoal toothpaste and powders, which claim to brighten smiles using activated charcoal, an abrasive carbon material that also is used in filters to remove toxins from water, and is known to absorb oil and dirt.
It’s a popular additive in facial cleansers and masks, sponges and even shampoo.
But you might want to think twice before using it on your teeth, says Dr. Amanda Sheehan, a dentist with Oakland Family Dental in Waterford.
Question: Are charcoal toothpastes and powders safe?
Answer: You know what, charcoal toothpaste started thousands of years ago, back in the Roman times. It will remove the stains off your teeth, but the problem is it removes the enamel from your teeth, too. … Enamel is the hard surface of your tooth that keeps it healthy.
You have to be very careful with this because the charcoal is quite abrasive. And it actually can lead to some gum recession. Some of the particles of charcoal are getting lodged underneath the gums and have to be surgically removed.
They get embedded underneath the gums quite aggressively. And so a sign of that is you start so see some bluing around the gums, and that would be some of the pieces that are embedded in the gums.
Q: How often would you have to use charcoal toothpaste to cause damage?
A: I would say that depends on the health of your teeth prior to using it because if your enamel is already compromised for other reasons, you could have damage as early as your first time using it.
But of course, if you have healthy teeth, it’s hard for me to say how many uses it would take to cause damage. That would depend on how hard somebody brushed and specifically what kind of product they are using. There’s a lot of factors that could go into it.
Q: Have you ever tried it?
A: I can tell you that as a dentist, I would never use it myself or let anybody in my family use it.
Q: What should people use for whitening instead?
A: I always like to talk about prevention first. The best way to prevent the staining from happening is to be cautious with colored drinks. Any sort of coffee, any sort of Coke or any dark sodas, you want to be careful because they are both acidic and dark. When you combine the acidity and the dark coloring, it actually allows it to penetrate and stain the teeth further.
So if you’re going to have those drinks of luxury, you’re going to want to make sure you’re utilizing a straw, so it minimizes the connection to the teeth. You also want to always make sure to drink some plain water afterward so the residue is not remaining in the mouth.
Q: What if your teeth are already stained?
A: Everything starts with the health of your mouth prior to getting the whitening done. If you have gum disease, once you get the gums healthier, it’s amazing how the teeth start to look better.
Everybody comes in and wants whitening, but you first have to address the overall health of the gums. Then, once you’re healthy enough, you can have the whitening done. But truthfully, once the gums are in shape and you’re cleaning off the plaque and you’re cleaning off all of that build up, you’ll be really surprised how your teeth naturally become whiter.
If you have everything that’s caked on there — the bad bacteria and the tarter — it makes your teeth appear yellow. But once they’re clean, they are healthier and whiter right away.
Q: If you’ve still got stains after cleaning, what’s the next best option?
A: I would say if you’re looking for a whitening product over the counter, where you’re not going to have a dentist supervise it, you want to look for one endorsed by the American Dental Association, the ADA. It has a stamp on the front of it that says ADA approved.
What that means is … that whatever the product is claiming has been tested in a third-party laboratory, which means it is safe for the public.
There’s a lot more to it than the color of your teeth. There’s the health of the teeth and the health of the gums. That’s logical, right? I have seen patients come in with burning on their gums where their gums literally slough away or peel away from the acid, because it wasn’t applied properly.
Crest has always been something I endorse, but you know you have to be careful because there are so many products that come on the market.
A lot of times, you see these products and if they don’t have the ADA symbol, you don’t know if they have been tested and approved by the dental association.
Q: Why do teeth-whiteners make my teeth sensitive?
A: Most whitening products are acidic. Because they’re acidic, they increase sensitivity.
So, take Crest White Strips for example. The problem with Crest White Strips is you can get quite sensitive. I’ve used them myself and the sensitivity can get quite extreme.
If you wanted to do something at home, over the counter, the best thing to do would be to get evaluated by your dentist prior to make sure your gums and teeth are ready for whitening because it will exaggerate other dental conditions that are unhealthy, like a cavity, for instance.
If you put any sort of whitening product on top of a cavity, it’s an acid. So an acid is going to make that cavity or that hole in the tooth get worse, which leads to needing more root canals and eventually extractions.
The other thing to think about is that if somebody has recession — it is very common for someone to have their gums kind of pulling away from their teeth for a number of reasons, exposing the root. If you stick any kind of whitening product on there, the root is not protected by enamel. Enamel is really your defense mechanism against any sort of pathogen or any foreign thing in your mouth, and so if you have a root exposed and you stick an acid on there, like any sort of whitening product, you are really asking for trouble.
No. 1, it’s going to hurt because the root is not protected, and No. 2 you’re closer to the nerve, so you’re more likely to have longstanding problems.
Q: So what should people use?
A: The best thing would be to have an evaluation by your primary dentist to make sure you don’t have any underlying problems. Ask for your individual recommendation. because there are so many different products on the market, and not everything is a one-fit for everybody.
There’s different kinds of material that’s used for whitening. There’s hydrogen peroxide, carbamide peroxide, there’s different kinds. Based on the gum condition and tooth condition, that’s how we make a recommendation.
There are lots of professional options, too, anywhere from making trays where we dispense peroxides we use, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. That’s when you do the whitening at home, but with a professional grade product and we monitor it.
The other options are utilizing an in-office whitening where the whitening is done immediately. We use Kör, Zoom and Glo. Those are light-assisted whitening products, and it’s extremely important that a dental professional applies them.
Q: Have those types of whitening been done outside a dental office?
A: I have seen things online where people can go to whitening bars or even a tanning studio where they say, ‘We can put this whitening on your teeth.’ That is scary and dangerous.
I don’t know how it is even legally done, but I’ve seen it. That is where people actually get caustic burns on their gums that are permanent or could be permanent. And generally, when we see the permanent tooth sensitivity, it’s from something like that, where the professional whitening was not applied as it should have been and monitored properly. That’s when somebody is in danger of losing a tooth or multiple teeth or having chronic sensitivity for life.
Q: If you’ve got sensitivity after using an at-home tooth whitener, what should you do?
A: Generally, this is temporary sensitivity that you get from a whitening product and alternating a day or skipping a day can help. Using a fluoride toothpaste after doing your whitening … helps fight the sensitivity, it will help a lot.
But if it turns into sensitivity that is prolonged more than a few days, then you’ need to see your dentist because it could be permanent sensitivity and other treatment might be needed.