Hello stranger! It's time for another installment of Beauty Bucket List, a series in which we roll up our sleeves to do some hard and fast testing of cult beauty products, because just hearing about how great something is isn't good enough for us. Through the eyes (and bodies) of contributing writers Alex and Colleen (one a beauty lover, the other mostly beauty clueless), we've assessed the hype-worthiness of Maybelline's best-selling Great Lash Mascara, exfoliating (and terrifying) foot peel, Baby Foot, as well as the hysterical Milky Piggy Bubble Mask. And now, it's time to investigate the teeth whitening powers of charcoal.
The Testers & the Products
- Colleen Murphy, makeup/skincare skeptic and newbie. Couldn't care less about "trends" in the beauty world. Go-to daily makeup: An old Lipsmackers she's been using since high school.
- Alex Nursall, beauty devotee and lover of all the "trends" Colleen doesn't care about. Go-to daily makeup: everything.
Products tested: My Magic Mud Activated Charcoal Tooth Powder ($15 at Amazon) & My Magic Mud Activated Charcoal Toothpaste ($9 at Amazon). Said to "clean, polish, whiten, and detox" your teeth and mouth, we had Colleen and Alex test two different applications. From My Magic Mud: "If you have yellow teeth and want a brighter smile, but you don't want to use harsh chemicals that can be harmful, this is the product for you. Magic Mud beautifully whitens and polishes your teeth naturally. Contains activated coconut shell charcoal, mint, and orange extract powder."
Why we tested it: Charcoal has been everywhere lately, from ice cream to face masks and, most recently, for whitening teeth. Skeptical (and a little worried for our tooth enamel, honestly), we had Alex and Colleen do the dirty work of testing and talking to the experts about risks and potential results.
Duration of product use: 1 week
A Little Info On Charcoal Toothpaste (& Some Science!)
Alex: I want to start this by saying that Toronto has been in some sort of weird activated charcoal fever dream since last summer. I don't know if other cities are as obsessed with it, but every single damn ice cream place, dessert store, juice bar, or cafe seemed to suddenly offer some sort of "goth" or "charcoal-infused" option. I'm a sucker for ridiculous ice cream, so I tried a couple of the options and they were…fine, I guess. It doesn't add anything to the actual flavor, it just makes it look fancy and very Instagrammable.
Colleen: I see your Toronto and raise you Vancouver, a true north for all things holistic and handcrafted, from homemade sunscreen to indigo workshops at sunset (side note: my father now uses the resulting "drape" I made as a meditation scarf). While it has yet to reach the heights of, say, kombucha, I've definitely spotted activated charcoal products in many Van City outlets from Pinterest-y DIY shops to Canadian Tire (lest we forget Vancouver is also a rugged nature playground).
[Charcoal] doesn't have a brain. It can't tell the difference between nutrients and the remnants of a margarita. — Alex
Alex: Activated charcoal as a beauty product hit mainstream trend-status around 2015/2016, showing up in masks, face washes, soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes, scrubs, whatever. If you were on Instagram, you probably saw at least 10 people peeling off a jet-black mask while screeching, "OW OW OW THIS HURTS I HATE THIS." Topical application of charcoal works pretty well as it's a porous substance, a decent exfoliator, and is good at picking up oil and face crud, but it's no magic bullet. Turns out that my face doesn't like charcoal very much, so I bowed out of that trend pretty quickly. (Side note: If any charcoal product says that it will "shrink your pores," it can't. Nothing can. That's not how pores work.)
Colleen: I can attest that not so long ago, a former roommate of mine got swept up in the excitement of the early charcoal beauty craze and, at the suggestion of the internet, made a DIY facemask out of activated charcoal and Elmer's Glue. Needless to say the removal process was excruciating and our washroom looked like an elementary school art class had dabbled in the occult.
Alex: Here's the main thing to note about activated charcoal if you're into the idea of putting it in your body: yes, charcoal is great at absorption, sucking in basically whatever comes in contact with it. This is great for things like alcohol poisoning, but the main thing to note about charcoal is that it isn't just picking up the bad stuff, but the good stuff, as well. It doesn't have a brain. It can't tell the difference between nutrients and the remnants of a margarita. If you're on medication, you should definitely speak to a doctor before introducing charcoal into your diet or self-care rituals, as it can reduce the efficacy of a number of drugs.
Colleen: I'm not normally the type to A) try new beauty products unprompted or B) google the ingredients of anything, but luckily for me, Alex is both! It was actually my partner who, upon seeing The Magic Mud toothpaste on the sink, remembered hearing that it has been said that ingesting activated charcoal can decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills (see above re: medication). Go figure. It's always good to do your due diligence before trying out any new beauty or health regimen.
Alex: I can yammer on about this all I want, but we thought we should at least speak to an actual dentist about this. According to Dr. P.K. Bains at the Lewis Estates Dental Centre in Edmonton, "More of my clients have been asking me about at-home, faddish teeth cleaning methods, specifically activated charcoal cleaning. Activated charcoal cleaning may be effective for reducing superficial plaque, but it will not actually whiten the enamel on your teeth. One of the best methods for teeth cleaning that I support is to use a good quality toothpaste over charcoal. However, my top recommendation for optimum oral health is the tried and true method of having consistent cleanings with your dentist." Standard toothpaste contains a lot of mild abrasives, like calcium carbonate (chalk), aluminum hydroxide (which is also used as an antacid), and other polishing agents. FYI, you don't want to go too wild with using abrasives on your teeth, as it can lead to excess enamel erosion. Enamel is good! DON'T MESS WITH YOUR ENAMEL.
Colleen: There are a handful of different activated charcoal toothpastes on the market ranging from powders to more conventional bottles of paste. Alex went with the former and I went with the latter. The My Magic Mud paste I used was a thick, slick (but not sticky) oil paint-like product that took careful coaxing in order to squeeze out directly onto the brush.
Alex: The My Magic Mud I used was a very fine powder that you have to pick up with a small spoon and add onto a damp toothbrush. At that point, I would try desperately not to sneeze or jar the brush, lest I fire powder everywhere around the bathroom. Next, I would jam the toothbrush in my mouth and try to gently brush my teeth with my mouth closed, which actually feels a lot weirder than one would think.
Long story short, I did not enjoy this one bit. Maybe I've just played into the well-manicured hands of BIG TOOTHPASTE, but I've spent so many years in dentist and orthodontist offices having people jam their hands and bits of metal in my mouth in an attempt to tame my rows and rows of shark teeth (I have a small jaw and apparently 10,000 teeth) so I'm very finicky about my oral health.
Using this made me feel like I was filling my mouth with dust and/or chowing down on the contents of my pencil case. Once I was done, I would then have to spend time basically scraping it out of my gum line, because—while it only made my teeth look about the same, maybe like...one nudge on the color slider whiter?—it decided that my gum line needed some sort of terrifying black bunting or whatever. Then I would spit it into the sink, only for it to get everywhere. I had to clean my sink every single time I used this, lest I leave my bathroom looking like I had allowed an impish Dickensian chimney sweep to wash himself in it. Not worth it.
Colleen: Okay, yes, the spitting part was definitely an issue. It really made me realize I was taking my white toothpaste for granted. The teeth brushing splash zone is remarkable. There are hundreds of specs of toothpaste all over your washroom, you just don't know it until you're working with the black stuff.
That aside, I actually liked this product! Like Alex, I am also sensitive about my teeth (on top of having sensitive teeth). Perhaps it stems from the trauma of being an awkward teen girl with braces but I've long been self conscious of my oral situation. From straightness, to whiteness and even breath-freshness, there is so much to fret over! In general I've never liked brushing my teeth (does anyone?) because it's the time in a day where I have to judge the merit of my smile in sometimes painful detail but, with the charcoal toothpaste, you don't really have a choice but to get over it and be thorough (lest it look like an ink pack exploded in your mouth).
It also eliminated that chemically toothpaste film and aftertaste I've always hated. My mouth felt clean as if I'd just gargled with essential oil (if that's your thing) and I definitely noticed an overall longer freshness of breath. Plus, there was none of that thing of where everything tastes disgusting right after you brush your teeth. [Alex: Mint life for me, thanks.]
As for the whiteness, the results were noticeable but not drastic. They aren't Hilary Duff veneers after all but after just a week, any improvement is a success for me.
Colleen: If you're going for the cheap thrill of quick (though not substantial) results, I say go for it! Though the price tag of around $15 for charcoal toothpaste is steeper than your standard Crest or Colgate, using the My Magic Mud paste made me a more diligent brusher and maybe that's part of the scheme.
Alex: I'm not sold. It made my dental care routine more complicated and I spent way more time per week cleaning my sink. I'm just going to stick with my boring mint toothpaste and regular cleanings at the dentist. Activated charcoal is great for certain applications (poisonings! Fish tank filters!) but, like most health trends, the actual tangible benefits are still up for debate (again, unless you've been poisoned, then have at it under the supervision of a doctor). I guess you can try this if you want to really buff the hell out of your teeth and want an alternative to drugstore whitening kits (though this is certainly not as effective). Now if anyone needs me, I'll be cleaning my sink again.