I used to get a lot of compliments on my big, white teeth. But truthfully, I can’t remember the last time I received that compliment. Unfortunately, my teeth have been on the suffering end of lengthy love affairs with coffee, red wine, and seltzer. (It’s true—even clear seltzer isn’t great for teeth!
My teeth aren’t necessarily yellow or discolored, but they aren’t pearly white either. As a result, I don’t feel great about my smile. And let’s be honest: I miss those compliments.
So I decided to try the teeth whitening fad everyone is talking about: Active Wow Teeth Whitening Charcoal Powder ($20).
How Active Wow charcoal works
According to the manufacturer, the product is made from natural ingredients—coconut charcoal, bentonite, orange seed oil, sodium bicarbonate, coconut oil, and mint flavor—that work together to absorb toxins and chemicals on the surface of your teeth.
The company says activated charcoal not only helps remove coffee, wine, and cigarette stains from your teeth, but also helps maintain oral health and eliminate bad breath.
Guidelines around specific usage are vague. The website states, “customers typically see visible results in as little as 1 to 2 treatments, but everyone’s starting point is different, so results will vary depending upon usage.”
I decided to commit to brushing with the product once per day for two to three minutes at a time for two weeks. It felt like a significant enough to commitment to see results, but not so excessive that I might overdo it.
Putting Active Wow teeth whitener to the test
It was immediately clear to me that this would be a messy process. Before I even unscrewed the lid, I had black charcoal on my fingers from unwrapping the film around the container. When I opened the lid, tiny flecks of charcoal sprinkled all over my newly cleaned counter. Annoying, but nothing a little wet wipe couldn’t fix.
I followed the directions closely, though I used a regular sink instead of a bowl, and a baby toothbrush which made the process less messy because I could get into the nooks and crannies of my mouth without spraying black charcoal everywhere.
Though the process is a sight to behold (your mouth really does get very, very black), the charcoal powder didn’t feel weird or grainy against my teeth—it was actually surprisingly smooth and tasteless.
And although my sink had charcoal flecks all over it and definitely needed more than a simple rinse afterwards, I somehow managed to keep it off of my (white!) clothes. The charcoal did, however, stain my toothbrush, so I was glad I dedicated one to the job.
What disappointed me most was that even after thoroughly rinsing, there was a lot of black residue stuck in the grooves between my teeth and the space between my teeth and my gums. Even brushing my teeth with regular toothpaste and flossing afterward didn’t completely rid my mouth of the black stuff. I made a mental note to save this task for before bed only.
The surprising results
After each session, my teeth felt surprisingly clean, but not clean enough to use it as a replacement for regular brushing. Besides needing to rid my teeth from excess charcoal, I still craved the minty fresh aftertaste you get from regular toothpaste.
Beyond that, I was truly puzzled—and a little disappointed—by the fact that this product just didn’t seem to do the trick for me. The product has more than 13,000 five-star reviews on Amazon, with the majority of users touting it as a miracle worker of sorts, but my before and after pictures don’t show a noticeable change.
That said, it looks like I’m not the only one who didn’t see results. The same product has just shy of 1,500 one-star reviews from disappointed customers like myself, some even claiming that the charcoal actually damaged their enamel.
So what gives?
Here's what the pros say about activated charcoal
"Some patients do see better whitening results with activated charcoal products than they do with over-the-counter whitening strips, toothpastes, etc.,” says Dr. Mark Duncan, a cosmetic dentist at Aesthetic Dentistry of Georgetown. “However, the opposite is also true for other patients. There is no clinical consensus, and results are largely anecdotal.”
If you’re looking for a tried-and-true remedy for stained teeth, it’s best to visit a dentist for an in-office or professional grade whitening. Though “activated charcoal can be effective for removing surface staining often found on the teeth of people who consume a lot of black tea, coffee, smoke, or engage in other high staining lifestyle activities, better options are peroxide-based whitening agents most safely provided by a dentist,” adds holistic and cosmetic dentist Dr. Tom Valmadre.
But if the activated charcoal does work for you (good for you—I’m jealous!), don’t use it too frequently. “Similar to why you shouldn’t use whitening toothpaste all the time, activated charcoal will wear away your enamel and dentin the more you use it over time,” says Calgary-based dentist Dr. Jennifer Silver. Ouch.