Activated charcoal is something of an ongoing health trend, with the ultra-absorbent ingredient popping up in everything from skin creams to detox cleanses. It's even showing up in toothpaste, as people try it out and hope it whitens their teeth without the need for time-consuming peroxide treatments, expensive dental veneers, or potentially damaging treatments.
If you're interested in trying out charcoal toothpaste – or if you're already trying it and want to know how long you have to use it – you're probably curious how long it takes to show results.
Unfortunately, it's not an easy question to answer. There are a bunch of different factors that influence how long it takes to see results with any teeth whitening product. Rather than try to give you a definitive answer, we've come up with a rundown on the topic for you.
How Activated Charcoal Toothpaste Works
First, you should know how, exactly, activated charcoal works for teeth whitening.
Activated charcoal works in two ways. The primary way it works is the way most people use it; for its absorbent qualities. Activated charcoal is extremely porous, and as such, it's very good at filtering out impurities. That's why it's used in water filters and in chemical spill cleanup. It's also why it's been added to everything from cleanses to skin creams.
Now, absorbing impurities is unlikely to work very well on teeth. Teeth staining comes from two directions; internal and external.
External staining comes from exposure to things that stain the enamel, like wine, coffee, and smoking. This staining can be surface-level build-up, called extrinsic staining, or deeper-penetrating stains called intrinsic staining.
Internal staining is not actually staining. The core of your teeth, underneath the enamel, is called dentin. This dentin starts out light, but as you age, it starts to yellow. Normally you wouldn't be able to tell, but your tooth enamel also tends to get thinner as you age, which means the dentin is more visible beneath. There's no way to undo this discoloration, and indeed trying is likely to thin your enamel more and can lead to darker colors.
External staining can be removed, but it's rarely due to something like the impurity absorption of activated charcoal. Rather, it's more likely due to abrasive or chemical polishing literally scraping away the stained enamel.
This is why many tooth whitening products are almost painful to use. They have to penetrate deep into the enamel of the teeth, and that can reach the dentin and stimulate the nerves in your teeth. You end up with something like a toothache while you're whitening, at least with chemical treatments.
Activated charcoal for tooth whitening is not using its purifying nature. Rather, it's taking advantage of another feature of charcoal: the abrasiveness. It's a fine particle, but it's sharp, and all of those rough edges make it very good at polishing. The abrasiveness can scrape off the outer stained surfaces of your enamel and any built-up tartar on your teeth, but it's not going to penetrate very deep.
This is where the biggest risk of using activated charcoal toothpaste comes into play, actually. Because the abrasive substance can scrape away at your tooth enamel, you can eventually erode it too much. Long-term, extended use of activated charcoal could even potentially erode so much enamel that it becomes like an artificial cavity. However, to erode enamel to any serious levels, you would have to really over-use it, many times per day for years or decades on end. This is not the intended use of the product.
So if charcoal is whitening your teeth with light abrasion, you can already start to see how some factors might influence how effective it is. Let's take a look at those factors.
How Stained Your Teeth Are
The first major factor is just how stained and dark your teeth are. Someone who doesn't drink coffee, who doesn't smoke, and who brushes regularly isn't going to have very dark teeth in general. Someone who does all of those things is much more likely to have darker teeth.
Darker teeth are likely to respond more to whitening than lighter teeth because the difference is more dramatic when you whiten them. Especially if a lot of the staining in your teeth is surface-level, charcoal can do wonders to scrape it away and bring out those pearly whites.
This also has something to do with your level of expectation. If you already have fairly white teeth, but you're searching for those blinding white "make a glinting noise when you smile" teeth you see from celebrities on TV, you're probably going to be disappointed. The fact is, those ultra-white teeth you see on TV and in movies are either digitally edited in post-production, or are dental veneers rather than any ongoing treatment. Much like flawless skin, extremely lustrous hair, and perfect beauty, it's an unrealistic standard for normal people.
There's a genetic component as well. Some people simply have darker teeth than others. No one is going to have bone-yellow or extremely dark teeth naturally, but reaching some ideal of whiteness isn't always going to be possible without something like deep chemical bleaching and laser treatments.
What Kind of Charcoal You Use
There are basically three levels of activated charcoal toothpaste you might be using.
The first level is the standard toothpaste that simply has some added activated charcoal in it. Something like Crest's Charcoal 3D White toothpaste, for example. These kinds of toothpaste are typically normal toothpaste, with all of the usual foaming chemicals, fluoride additives, flavorings, and other ingredients. They're packed full of a bunch of chemicals you can't pronounce, and while that itself isn't inherently bad, these toothpaste generally have very little charcoal in them.
In fact, there's some ongoing controversy amongst health products surrounding charcoal. Some companies have been found using so little charcoal that it's almost nothing more than a dye. Some companies skip the charcoal and just use a black dye instead! And a few unscrupulous companies have been using regular non-activated charcoal, which can be toxic and carcinogenic. Of course, all of this applies to every kind of charcoal product, not just the major brands.
The second level of charcoal products is using a dedicated natural activated charcoal toothpaste. Something like our charcoal toothpaste. Our formula is made of diatomaceous earth, activated charcoal, baking soda, citric acid, coconut oil, xanthan gum, and water.
Products like these rely on the charcoal as their main active ingredient. Our product has a few extras, like the citric acid and baking soda, to make it penetrate a little deeper to fight stains. Other products are even simpler, focusing even more on just the charcoal. The greater concentration of charcoal means these products are more potent at their job.
The third form of charcoal is something like what this gal used, which isn't even a charcoal toothpaste. She just straight-up took a capsule of activated charcoal, like what you would use as part of a colon cleanse, and broke it open to use the charcoal inside. You can do the same thing, or you can buy a larger tub of activated charcoal, and simply use a half a teaspoon or so each time you choose to brush with it.
This is, of course, the most abrasive form of charcoal you can use, which means it's the most concentrated and effective from the abrasion standpoint. However, the formulas that include things like baking soda and citric acid are more likely to penetrate deeper, because they have some element of chemical action as well.
Now let's talk about a mechanical factor. Dentists generally recommend that, when you brush your teeth, you should brush for around two minutes at a time, twice a day. Some people brush for longer, of course, and others never make it that long. Some people brush once a day instead of twice and brush for longer to compensate.
When brushing with charcoal toothpaste, you'll want to brush longer than you normally do, unless you're already the kind of person who brushes for a very long time. We're talking around three minutes at a time, and probably twice per day.
The reason for this is that the charcoal needs to be thoroughly used to get that abrasive action going on. Be sure to be even with brushing various surfaces of your teeth, and focus on the front and most visible surfaces for the best effect.
Some people recommend taking some charcoal toothpaste and smearing it on your teeth, then letting it sit for several minutes prior to actually brushing with it. The idea is that this gives the absorbent qualities of the charcoal time to penetrate your tooth enamel and lift up stains.
This probably doesn't actually work. Charcoal doesn't really penetrate enamel passively, it needs to be rubbed in. However, if your charcoal toothpaste has other chemical agents in it, those can penetrate and help lift up some stains. So, you can do this preparation if you prefer, but make sure you have the right kind of toothpaste to get benefit out of it.
How Often You Use It
One final factor that influences how effective charcoal toothpaste can be is how often you use it. While the typical toothpaste is meant to be used twice a day, charcoal toothpaste can be used as much or as little as you want. Some people prefer to brush with charcoal toothpaste twice a day for several weeks, then put it to rest for a while to let their tooth enamel recover. Some people instead prefer to use their charcoal toothpaste for their evening brushing, but use a normal toothpaste for the morning, when it could otherwise eat into their morning routine.
Our tip is to be careful about over-using charcoal toothpaste. Since the abrasive particles can erode your tooth enamel, you want to make sure you're not over-doing it. If you experience signs of new sensitivity, it's probably a good idea to discontinue the use of charcoal toothpaste and use something else that can restore tooth enamel in the meantime.
How Long Does it Take for Charcoal Toothpaste to Work?
Now that you know the various factors in play, we can give you some estimates for how long it'll take for the charcoal to work.
At the low end, you're generally looking at about two weeks of sustained use. This is relatively short for a lot of kinds of cosmetic treatments, so that's good news. Two weeks of using an abrasive toothpaste does mean that you're more likely to end up with tooth sensitivity, and you should probably avoid using it for long-term use. Using it for a few weeks at a time, then using something else with more protective qualities, is best.
If your teeth are already relatively white, your stains are deep or internal, or you're using commercial low-concentration charcoal toothpaste, it can take much longer for it to really become noticeable. Perhaps two months, if not longer, and the change will be gradual enough that you might not even notice it without before and after pictures.
Some people might also never experience benefits from a charcoal toothpaste. If your staining is entirely internal, or if it's very deep, charcoal alone isn't going to help. You would be better served to try a laser and peroxide treatment.
Tips for Using Charcoal Toothpaste
We don't have many tips for using charcoal toothpaste that hasn't already been covered above.
Remember that charcoal is a very fine powder and it gets into everything. This might not be a problem with something like a Crest toothpaste, but with a higher concentration – or with using pure powder on its own – you'll find that it will get in places you wouldn't think. It will take several minutes to rinse and clean out of your mouth, for one thing. It will also require cleaning your skin and possibly counter when you're done.
Likewise, if you're using pure charcoal powder, be careful when you use it. We recommend setting down paper towels anywhere the powder could get, and also avoid wearing white or light-colored clothing while you brush, to avoid staining anything you're wearing.