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To Charcoal or not to Charcoal

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By: Alex Park*

In 2010#, I was a final year pharmacy student. In my class, we were learning about drug overdose and its management. There was ONE particular medication that still resonates in my mind, and that is activated charcoal. Chemically speaking, if there is an overdose of medication such as paracetamol (i.e. Panadol®), activated charcoal, in an emergency setting, helps flush out excess medication by sticking like glue, and coming out through the backside. It was undoubtedly a lifesaving medication, and we thought nothing of it otherwise.

Nine years later, activated charcoal is used for everything! You can use it as a facial cleanser, to peel off blackheads, and even to drink for detoxing purposes. As the trend follows, dentistry also jumped on the bandwagon. It is on the media everywhere! People are now using activated charcoal toothpaste to brush their teeth, in hopes of finding alternatives to fluoride. The way it works is straightforward, it sticks onto the impurities and drags it out of the teeth. The result? It is supposed to make your mouth feel squeaky clean.

As unbelievable as it sounds, we need to explore the evidence. Does it work? Is it safe? Currently, the literature says “NO” (Brooks, Bashirelahi & Reynolds 2017a; Brooks, Bashirelahi & Reynolds 2017b). So why is this? Because our mouth is always changing. We live, and we eat. Most of us are on multiple medications, eat processed foods and refined sugars, and smoke like chimneys. These factors all contribute to damaging our beautiful pearly whites and gums. As a result, activated charcoal is not enough to counteract all these harsh environments. Furthermore, our body is not programmed to ingest any traces of charcoal regularly! No wonder we cannot say it is safe.

As a registered dentist, I am usually open-minded. If activated charcoal works for the patient, I will not contest. If there are no clinical signs, then it must work for them. But, as a healthcare professional, we must be honest, transparent, and explain the procedures which are followed up by clinical trials.

It is always easy to stray to the latest trend. This may be a culmination of social media and celebrity endorsement. Trust me, impulsive spending is a normal human trait and I am guilty of it as well. The lessons to be made in this avenue is that, if one is prepared to go through the charcoal route, they need to be informed of the benefits and the risks. Unless they are willing to put in the hard yards and accept the consequences, most likely the clinical outcome will not be favourable. However, everyone is entitled to their own opinions.

#Disclaimer – These experiences based on evidences and experiences accumulated over time. This is not to be used in a clinical and medical context. Any concerns should be addressed to your dental practitioner.
Dr Alex Park*Dr Alex Park is a dentist at the Dentist WA Canning Vale and Ranford Road Dental Centre.He is also a researcher at the International Research Collaborative – Oral Health and Equity (IRCOHE.net). Any questions can be addressed to alex@ircohe.net.This piece has been mediated by Associate Professor Estie Kruger at IRCOHE.net.

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