Move over,“Oil Pulling”! Does Activated Charcoal Really Turbo-Whiten Your Teeth?

“Activated charcoal” has quickly become a trendy, go-to ingredient in myriad DIY skin and beauty recipes. The porous substance is touted as a clarifying, decontaminating agent that sucks out toxins and leaves you healthier, glowier and prettier.

Sounds cool, but I can’t help but ask myself, “Does it really work as well as everyone says?”

Looks a little…potent.
Looks a little…potent.

If Pinterest is any testament–and I argue that it totally is–one of the most common uses for activated charcoal at the moment is teeth whitening. Supposedly, activated charcoal is so powerful that it’ll give you super-white teeth in just one use and, over time, you may reach levels of teeth so white you can see them from outer space (note: you can’t really see teeth from outer space, nor can you actually see the Great Wall of China, I’ll have you know).

The How-To

I decided to put activated charcoal to the test for myself. And, as any sane person who cares about her teeth would do, I consulted a dentist on the matter to see if putting activated charcoal in my mouth was potentially risky for my dental health. Let’s dig in.

There are several ways to whiten your teeth with charcoal. The most common way, it seems, is to mix equal parts water and (powdered) activated charcoal. You can experiment with a consistency that works well for you, but I settled on a 1/2 tablespoon of each.

Combine both together in you vessel of choice–I’m using a shot glass because why not?–and then cheers yourself in the mirror before transferring the gritty, dark black liquid into your mouth. Look at the worry on my face.

Next, swish the liquid around for about a minute and then hold it in your mouth for roughly three to five minutes.

If I were on a dating website, this would be my profile picture.
If I were on a dating website, this would be my profile picture.

After swishing the mixture, I separated the water from the grittier charcoal by sucking the water backward. Then I held the charcoal in front of my teeth for the remaining five minutes. I read that this was a more effective way of doing things, so I went for it.

Another option is to create a thicker consistency and apply the activated charcoal mixture to your toothbrush as you would toothpaste. Then gently brush your teeth. Because the charcoal is gritty, I worried that it’d be too abrasive to brush with every day. I also hated the feeling, so I only brushed with the activated charcoal the first time and then resorted to simply swishing/holding.

What The Dentist Says

I decided to reach out to Dr. Jessica Emery, in Chicago, She specializes in cosmetic dentistry, so she knows a thing or two about getting perfect, pearly whites.

I was particularly curious about Dr. Emery’s opinion on a) whether this could potentially work and b) if there were any health concerns I should factor in. She was full of wisdom!

“With any trend, one of the first things that comes to mind is how safe is it when swallowed,” says Dr. Emery. “An important factor here is you must never use just any type of charcoal–it must be ‘activated charcoal’ since it is purified and made especially for use in medicine.”

In fact, Dr. Emery explained that using activated charcoal as a medicinal agent “dates back to 1550 BC and is commonly used to treat poisonings, preventing their absorption.” They still use activated in hospitals today, most commonly for alcohol and other poisonings.

As for whitening teeth? Dr. Emery says that activated charcoal may have a similar effect on your teeth over time.

“[Activated charcoal] is shown to be attracted to a group of found compounds known as tannins,” she says. “Tannins can be found in common stain inducing items like wine or coffee, for instance. In theory, this is why many people are turning to brushing with activated charcoal.”

Ultimately, activated charcoal may potentially work over time, but don’t expect anything fast and impressive. You certainly won’t be “turbo whitening” your teeth in a matter of minutes, that’s for sure.

Dr. Emery also stresses that, should you choose to employ DIY treatments when it comes to dental care–to understand “that no matter how well an at-home treatment can work, these holistic remedies can and will never replace flossing or brushing and the need to visit your dentist for routine check ups and cleanings.”


My Results

As someone who consumes at least 16 ounces of coffee per day and has an affinity for red wine, my teeth have definitely seen whiter days. That said, I brush and floss on the regular and never miss my six-month cleaning. Don’t blame me for my stained teeth–torch the tannins!

Here's the before.
Here’s the before.

My teeth are certainly stained, so I think I’m the perfect candidate for this DIY activated charcoal teeth-whitening experiment.

Immediately after.
Immediately after.

And here’s what my teeth looked like after the first time I brushed/swished with activated charcoal.

You are correct in your observations: there is no  discernible difference in whiteness.

Finally–SEVEN WHOLE DAYS of using activated charcoal (once daily)–here’s another after.

Again… no major difference. If I look hard enough, maybe I can convince myself that the final picture is a little whiter, but in the end I really feel like all that effort was for naught. Sigh.

They say that pain is beauty, “pain” representing literal discomfort and general unpleasantness, including pain-in-the-you-know-what. Gargling with gritty charcoal every single day in an attempt to “turbo whiten” my coffee and wine stained teeth? TOTALLY QUALIFIES FOR THIS IDIOM. However, I did not get the “beauty result” that I’d hoped for with this experiment, despite the “pain.”

As a result, I will not use activated charcoal as a whitening agent any more. Hand me the white strips, please.