Charcoal has long been used by people for a range of purposes – including art, medicine and fuel – though now the word is perhaps more likely to evoke memories of a summer barbeque than something you would expect to find in beauty products. In recent years it has been hailed a ‘wonder ingredient’ by the beauty industry, and can be found in a range of products from face masks to shower gels. There has been a rise of late in sales of charcoal toothpaste, which is said to kill bacteria, prevent against cavities, and whiten teeth. Just how true are these claims?

Activated charcoal – carbon that’s been treated to increase its absorbency – has been used in hospitals for years to treat poisonings and overdoses. It works by attaching to toxins in the stomach and absorbing them before the bloodstream can. It is suggested that activated charcoal in toothpaste works in the same way, absorbing tartar and other substances to lead to whiter teeth, and health bloggers on Instagram and other social media sites are promoting its benefits.

However, all might not be as it seems. Minneapolis-based dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association Dr. Kim Harms, DDS says, “There’s no evidence at all that activated charcoal does any good for your teeth.” As an abrasive, prolonged use of activated charcoal might have negative effects on the gums and enamel on the teeth – in short, it not only eradicates tartar and stains, but also weakens the enamel. The enamel is the white part of the tooth which, if damaged, can thin and leave teeth yellow. On top of that, charcoal toothpastes often do not contain fluoride, which is worrying as fluoride can cut tooth decay by up to 40%.

Medicine applicants might wish to look at the use of charcoal in medicine throughout the ages – as well as the cases in which it is still prescribed in tablet form on the NHS. Chemistry applicants would be wise to look further into the composition of charcoal and its properties. History and Archaeology and Anthropology applicants might want to consider how charcoal has been used by ancient populations.

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