Everything You Need to Know About Charcoal Toothpaste

Decipher fact from fiction before joining the toothpaste trend.

Close-Up Of Tooth Brush
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Activated charcoal has come a long way over the years. For centuries, it was used in medical arenas to absorb toxins from the body. This detox characteristic led to its use in the beauty market. Now, its use in charcoal toothpaste is embraced by the natural product community.

While seemingly new, the use of charcoal and chewing sticks for cleaning teeth has been used for millennia in other countries, specifically in indigenous populations. Today, charcoal toothpaste is mostly used as a teeth whitener. Yet while many people swear by this trend, scientific evidence does not back up the whitening claim. Another question from the environmental community is how well charcoal toothpaste ranks on the sustainability scale.

What Is Charcoal Toothpaste?

Charcoal toothpaste is made with activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, which can be made from any organic (or carbon-based) substance, such as burnt coconut shells, olive pits, coal, sawdust, or bone char. "Activating" the carbon involves heating a carbon-rich material in the presence of gas. This increases the surface area by creating pores that can trap chemicals. The resulting ash can then be ground into a fine but abrasive powder.

Toothpaste brands with charcoal-based products claim that the activated ingredient roughly removes stains from the surface of the teeth. Products labeled as "natural" or "organic" are likely to have fewer ingredients — in addition to charcoal, coconut oil and baking soda are commonly included. Toothpastes without those labels typically have the ingredients of regular toothpaste, with the addition of activated charcoal as a whitening agent.

Is Charcoal Toothpaste Sustainable?

Composition with bamboo toothbrushes, teeth whitening powder and orchid flower.

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While studies have yet to back up the whitening benefits, another query remains: Is the production of charcoal toothpaste sustainable, or is this another "green-washed" trend? Below are some factors worth analyzing to get to the bottom of this question.

Deforestation

Turning wood into charcoal has been practiced for thousands of years. However, the use of this energy source in the Western world's beauty industry is a relatively recent practice that is increasing demand. Market reports show the use of charcoal in beauty products is expected to rise significantly in the coming years. At current projections, this could have a devastating effect on forests. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 29% of wood harvested in Africa was turned into charcoal. While 90% of the wood is used for fuel in some capacity, according to the report, the increased demand has caused the production of charcoal from wood to double over the last 20 years. While charcoal in toothpaste may not be the main problem, it also isn't helping.

However, it hasn't been all bad. The increased income has given many people the means to purchase food and invest in agriculture. When you factor food security into the equation, the use of sustainable practices could make this a favorable market.

The Use of Bentonite Clay

An estimated one third of charcoal products contain bentonite clay. Bentonite clay has been used by a range of populations and cultures for centuries, for various health benefits. It is an abundant, inexpensive clay that is readily available in nature. Yet, while plentiful, clay is considered a non-renewable resource. In addition, the mining of bentonite clay is hazardous to worker's health because, while bentonite itself is innocuous, it can contain silica particles that are known carcinogens.

Plus, as with any type of mining, the mining of bentonite clay is environmentally destructive. The most common ramifications are erosion, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity due to the removal of soil and creation of large depressions or pits. Many state laws require leveling of the soil to prevent erosion, but this isn't always the case. Even when pits are refilled, it has been shown that the stockpiling of the soil causes chemical, biological, and physical properties to change. These changes inevitably affect wildlife living in the area.

Charcoal Toothpaste and Essential Oils

Natural toothpastes sometimes include essential oils in their ingredients — and while these oils are often natural, the scientific benefits of their inclusion vary. Above all, the production of essential oils is extremely wasteful. One essential oil company acknowledged that it takes 250 pounds of mint leaves to create one pound of peppermint essential oil.

Toothpaste Packaging

Another issue making waves is toothpaste packaging. The plastic tubes most toothpaste comes in are one-use and not recyclable. The boxes the tubes come in are seen as all but useless. No matter what type of toothpaste is chosen, it is probably better to find one in a reusable jar.

The Future of Charcoal Can Be Sustainable

Activated charcoal can be made from pretty much any biomass. Since those are plentiful and abundant, the production of charcoal would be a great way to use materials that would otherwise be wasted. As long as petroleum or coal are not the source, it is possible for the production of activated charcoal to be a benefit to the environment.

When it comes to trends like this, it's important to be mindful of the ingredients and their sources. While charcoal toothpaste may not be the most sustainable product to become popular in recent years, it can still be better than some traditional toothpastes, in more ways than one.

A Dental Warning

There has been no scientific evidence of the effectiveness of charcoal toothpaste. While studies have been done, results have been inconclusive. A review in the Journal of the American Dental Association states that "larger-scale and well-designed studies are needed to establish conclusive evidence" about the use of charcoal in toothpaste. Dental clinicians are advised to use caution when recommending charcoal-based dental care products.