Friday, August 19, 2016

Blacken Your Teeth (to Whiten Them)?

Last time I gave an example of the desperation evident in people’s behavior to find some simple miracle to improve their health and wellbeing. All it takes is a celebrity endorsement, some anecdotal evidence on a TV doctor show, a news report about preliminary findings or a viral video and many people decide to adopt a new habit, product or procedure without any research.  The professionals are then forced to react with warnings and watch-outs to protect their patients from potential harm.

It happened again this month after a YouTube post by someone going by the name of Mama Natural became an instant success, reaching millions of viewers.  This was not about a miracle cure for your body, but for a miracle teeth-whitening solution.  Now, according to Fox News and others, dentists are “warning against using [this] DIY whitening trend that involves smearing a charcoal-derived black mixture on teeth” saying it “may lead to enamel deterioration and tooth erosion.”

Activated charcoal capsules are available in health food stores or on line.  The video recommends that you break open a capsule and mix the powder with water to achieve a pasty texture.  Then either brush it directly onto your teeth or instead just swish the powder around in your mouth.  Rinse after three to five minutes (some say up to ten minutes) and see the results.  Endorsements, testimonials and spokespersons say you will see whiter teeth almost immediately.

The theory is that activated charcoal absorbs impurities.  It has been used in air filters and in emergency rooms to treat poisonings and drug overdoses.  More recently activated charcoal has been adopted into beauty products, such as skin creams and facial masks, to supposedly produce benficial effects by absorbing impurities on the skin.  The next logical step is to use it to deep-clean teeth, remove the stains and get them sparkling white.

Not so fast!  The responsible articles point out that not enough evidence is available to tell if charcoal brushing is beneficial or dangerous.  The charcoal itself might be too abrasive.  Over time it might actually be removing enamel along with those stains.  When you lose enamel, not only do your teeth get sensitive, but the tooth enamel is lost.  Enamel can’t grow back as cut skin or broken bones do.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

While dentists are concerned, the natural websites are spreading the news.  This one gives instructions, promotes it as a "natural" way to whiten teeth and mentions only the messiness as a potential downside.  (The pictures accompanying some of these stories are really disgusting, so messiness is indeed a problem, though a minor one.)

But dentists have only themselves to blame.  Over the past 10 to 15 years I have noticed more radio, TV, direct mail and Internet advertising for dentists with most of them emphasizing the whiteness of your teeth over the health of your teeth.  Catch phrases like “show me your teeth,” “perfect smiles” and similar ones stress the superficial side of oral hygiene.  Most dentists offer tooth whitening as an extra service.  So why are they surprised? How can they really blame patients when a potentially less expensive way to get the same results comes on the market or over the Internet?  When you start appealing to appearances over the practical need to see a dentist regularly, it may work to bring in business in the short run but you will soon find yourself in a different competition.

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