Around the world, beauty comes in many forms. While cultures value different body types, hairstyles and eye colors, there is one trait that seems to be universally appreciated: a bright, beautiful smile. But in the United States, and much of the rest of the Western world where lattes, wine and soda are prevalent, achieving that luminous smile can be difficult.
In the United States, the tooth-whitening industry is worth an estimated $11 billion a year. For those looking to save money or avoid harsh chemicals and still get a brighter smile, a new category of whitening pastes has debuted in the marketplace, and it’s getting a lot of press. Charcoal whitening pastes are getting attention around the world -- but do these pastes work and, more importantly, are they safe?
Dr. Stephen Hill of Allen, Texas, is one dentist who isn’t so sure. Hill has seen the YouTube videos of charcoal toothpaste users, with their dull "before" teeth and gleaming "after" teeth, but isn’t convinced the results are worth the trouble.
"Yes, they look like they’re lightening the teeth pretty instantaneously," says Hill. "But how deep are they cleaning? Any whitening toothpaste can lighten surface stains."
Hill says most mainstream whitening paste are made with FDA- and ADA-approved ingredients that are proven safe for teeth. Not necessarily so with the charcoal pastes, Hill says.
"Some of these brands I’ve never heard of in my life," he says. "You wouldn’t just put any brand of medicine in your mouth - why would you put a toothpaste that hasn’t been ADA approved in your mouth?"
Many dentists agree. It’s not about being a brand snob, it’s a safety issue.
"You don’t know who these companies are making this paste, or if they are regulating the amount of active ingredients in it," Hill says. "You don’t know if they’ve met safety standards in their manufacturing facilities."
And then there’s the effects of the paste on the teeth themselves.
"Basically, you are brushing your teeth with wood," Hill says. Charcoal is made of carbon, which is made by slowly cooking wood in a low-oxygen environment. "It might work well for your barbecue, but I wouldn’t put that on my teeth."
Why not? For starters, Hill says charcoal is extremely abrasive.
"That’s how it gets your teeth so white. It is scraping the surface stains right off your teeth," he says.
That may sound good, but it’s not just taking the stains, it’s taking your tooth enamel with it.
"Your teeth are very strong, but at the same time your enamel is delicate. If you scrape it or damage it, that’s it. It doesn’t grow back," Hill says.
According to Hill, this can mean costly repair procedures like fillings, veneers and sealants, which may need to be replaced several times throughout a patient’s lifetime. Suddenly, saving all that money on the charcoal toothpaste isn’t such a deal. According to Hill, veneers can cost up to $2,500 per tooth, just for the first set.
"Veneers look beautiful, but they’re not meant to last forever," Hill says. "Most last an average of five to seven years, and once you get one set, you’ve bought into them for life."
Ultimately, Hill says pass on the charcoal and stick to more proven whitening methods.
"If you can’t afford professional whitening from your dentist, try a whitening toothpaste with the ADA seal of approval, or a box of whitening strips," he says. "They might cost a little more, but they won’t damage your teeth."