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To Charcoal or not to Charcoal

To Charcoal or not to Charcoal

by Dr Alex Park 18/04/2019

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 was 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 to it like glue and draw them out of the body with waste. It was, undoubtedly, a lifesaving medication and we thought nothing of it otherwise.

Nine years on and activated charcoal is used for everything. It's used as a facial cleanser, a toothpaste (in hopes of finding alternatives to fluoride) or some use it as a drink for detoxing.

Important questions to ask are: 'Does it work?' and 'Is it safe?'. Currently, the literature says 'NO' (Brooks, Bashirelahi & Reynolds 2017a; Brooks, Bashirelahi & Reynolds 2017b).

So why is this? The main reason is that our mouth conditions are constantly changing. Some of us are on multiple medications, some eat processed foods and refined sugars, some of us smoke. All these factors contribute to damaging our beautiful pearly whites and gums. As a result, activated charcoal is not enough. Furthermore, our body is not programmed to ingest any traces of charcoal regularly. Hence the reason 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, I must be transparent and share my knowledge.

It is always easy to stray to the latest trend. This could be due to a culmination of advertising, social media or celebrity endorsements. Trust me, impulsive spending is a normal human trait and I am guilty of it as well. So, if you are prepared to take the charcoal route, you need to learn and understand all benefits and risks.

#Disclaimer: This is based on evidence and experiences accumulated over time. This is not to be used in a clinical and medical context. All concerns should be addressed to your dental practitioner.

*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.