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Charcoal on the grill? Latest toothpaste trend inspires dental researchers

A new toothpaste is giving alternative meaning to the notion of throwing some charcoal on the grill.

And a group of Creighton University dental students and faculty are putting charcoal toothpaste — that’s right — through the fire to determine its effectiveness when compared to the more traditional means of cleaning one’s teeth.

“It does seem counterintuitive that you’re going to put this black toothpaste on your teeth,” said Donal Scheidel, DDS, associate professor in the Diagnostic Services Department and director of the Continuing Education Department in the School of Dentistry. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to do what it’s supposed to do. But there has been huge growth in the last 15 to 20 years in aesthetic dentistry to find better ways to brighten and whiten smiles and this is the latest fad.”

Touted by such celebrities as actress Gwyneth Paltrow and rapper Drake, charcoal toothpaste is the beauty-product-du-jour among the Hollywood set and at prices upwards of $7 a tube, there’s still not much information on how well it works. Paltrow has been especially vocal on the subject of charcoal’s hygienic properties, starting with charcoal facial conditioners of which she’s a fan.

Last fall, a group of dentists seeking research on the efficacy of charcoal toothpaste reached out to Scheidel and Sonia Rocha-Sanchez, PhD, professor in the Department of Oral Biology and director of the Biomedical Sciences Research Core, to see if they might be interested in running some experiments on the stuff. Rocha-Sanchez and Scheidel formed a research team with six first-year dental students who have proceeded to test the charcoal toothpaste and measure it against other whitening products, paying special attention to the charcoal’s effect on enamel.

“We are looking at changes in the enamel because of the abrasive nature of charcoal, that’s probably the first thing you’d want to look for,” Rocha-Sanchez said. “The comparison has been interesting and we’re curious to see what the final results show us.”

The research team will wrap up its study in April, in time to submit it for a school-wide research event and compete for an opportunity to represent Creighton at the Dentsply Sirona SCADA (Student Competition for Advancing Dental Research and its Application) competition, a global event aimed at engaging the next generation of dental professionals in discovery and advancement of dental research, and the improvement of oral health worldwide. Two years ago, another group of Creighton dental students competed and won second place at the global SCADA competition.

Twin siblings Stacia Howell and Jon Howell are first-year students in the research group and jumped at the chance to work with such an interesting research idea in the early stages of their dental education.

“We’ve seen a few celebrity endorsements but no dentist endorsements yet,” Stacia Howell said. “It’s not ADA (American Dental Association) approved, so there’s still much we don’t know yet. Your first thought with charcoal toothpaste is that it wouldn’t seem to work, but that’s why we’re doing the study and looking forward to the results being able to shed more light on it.”

In initial experiments on isolated teeth — teeth that have been extracted and donated for the purposes of research — Jon Howell said he was able to put to bed some of his initial skepticism about the properties of the product itself.

“It’s very fine,” he said. “It’s black, but it’s not like rocks or chunks of charcoal. It’s got more of a baking-soda consistency, so we’re able to compare that the particle side of more traditional whitening toothpastes.”

Early statistical analyses of the data collected suggest a change in tooth shade toward the grey region after the prolonged use of charcoal toothpaste. The team said it’s possible the fine charcoal particles are being absorbed and staining the tooth enamel, leading to tooth discoloration.

Using scanning electron microscopy, the researchers are looking to assess potential changes on the enamel structure of the brushed teeth, a set of experiments that are currently ongoing. Analyzing that data is the next step in the project and one that, for the students, gives their special insight into how their careers as practitioners can be enhanced by embarking on these undertakings.

“It’s a hands-on way of learning for which you can see the benefit,” Stacia Howell said. “For something that’s so popular in the culture right now, we’re getting a behind the scenes look at it and learning how to talk about it in a way that’s relatable to patients.”

Scheidel and Rocha-Sanchez also noted that the ability to be conversant on trends is a major asset for dentists.

“There’s value in participating in these projects that shows itself when you are able to go through a journal article or a magazine and know how results were reached and maybe even see if there’s some bad science going on,” Scheidel said. “We want our students to be better consumers of that material, to exercise critical thinking on that level and take it into the practice modality.”

Cutting through the exterior to determine what’s going on with the latest products and procedures is a key component for today’s dentists, Rocha-Sanchez added.

“Patients will come with questions, some will have misinformation that could be on the level of the grotesque,” Rocha-Sanchez said. “So to take a student outside of the basic training and give them this chance to investigate from the root and determine the best paths to treatment and prevention is likely to result in better formed and informed professionals.”


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