Let's Reminisce: Whiten your teeth with charcoal
By Jerry Lincecum
Sep 18, 2018
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The pursuit of things and ideas that are new and different seems to be baked into humans (to use a term that is itself a fairly new coinage), and from time to time I read or hear about a new fad that strikes me as hard to believe.  This summer has offered some notable examples, such as the fact that Austin College’s athletic department has added a new sports teams: water polo.   The appeal of water polo I can understand, but how far will the players have to travel in order to find other teams to compete against?

Going on-line to view the scheduled competitors, I see the Kangaroos will be playing Brown University (in Providence, RI), Harvard, and MIT.  I suppose the opportunity to “rub shoulders” with teams from these prestigious institutions is seen as worth the time and expense of traveling to New England.

But let’s move on to a new fad that appears to be sweeping across the country: charcoal toothpaste.  In the words of a product development consultant for beauty and personal-care companies, “Everyone wants to try something new, but it has to be something that looks cool. It has to be more than just white,” says Susan Trumpbour.

But let’s hear from a consumer who qualifies as an “early adopter” of this new product.  Lauren Chouinard, a 27-year-old digital marketing manager, has been brushing twice a day for three months with a charcoal toothpaste she bought online for $15. “It does make a mess,” she says. The black residue rinses from lips and gums, and it adds an extra step to her morning routine in order to clean the sink.  But she is convinced it makes her teeth whiter.

If you’ll pardon the pun, dentists are grinding their teeth at the use of this abrasive product.  They say it may whiten teeth in the short run, but will eventually wear into the dentin, which is the next layer below the enamel, and it’s yellow.  Who wants yellow teeth?  According to a review published in the Journal of the American Dental Assn., there is insufficient evidence to show dental products with charcoal are safe or effective for your teeth.

And incidentally, this practice is far from new: the first recorded use of charcoal in oral hygiene has been credited to Hippocrates in ancient Greece. “Activated” charcoal, which has been treated to become more porous, has long been used as a remedy in poisoning cases, since it binds to ingested toxins before they are absorbed by the body.

That reputation as a detoxifier has given rise to numerous consumer products.  Procter & Gamble recently launched charcoal-based shampoos and conditioners across hair-care lines, including Pantene, Head & Shoulders and Herbal Essences. One line of makeup has even marketed a $28 makeup brush with “activated charcoal infused into the fibers of the brush.”  Charcoal is getting a boost from social media, which is always in the vanguard of new products and ideas.

I was all set to dismiss this new fad as too far out to show up in my neck of the woods, but along came a brochure insert in my local newspaper with a variety of discount coupons for shampoo and toothpaste with charcoal.  So those products must be available locally, but I’m going to look for them.  You are welcome to give me a report if you try them.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: