I love coffee. I love it so much that it’s most of the reason why I’m a morning person, and it’s what gets me through a long afternoon. I don’t even mean that I love caffeine. I’ll drink decaf all day long if I can just have the deliciously bitter, roasted taste of my brewed-way-stronger-than-Starbucks coffee.
The first time I drank coffee was on my wedding day. I was 27 years old and had been awake since 4 AM with what is probably normal pre-wedding excitement. Our ceremony was in the morning, but then we had an afternoon reception, and somewhere between saying “I do” and the lull of waiting for the other guests to arrive, I felt so tired I could barely stay on my feet. It was my mom who brought me a cup of black coffee, and it was literally love at first sip. My new husband and I hit the Starbucks drive-thru on our way to our honeymoon.
While it’s entertaining that I can celebrate my love of coffee on the same day that I tied the knot, there is a major downside to my relationship with the coffee bean: my teeth have seen brighter days. Many of us find ourselves taking comfort in beverages and foods that are putting a damper on our pearly whites—like tea, soda, and even chocolate—but the good news is that we don’t just have to live with it and we don’t have to give up our favorite treats.
Teeth whitening is a big business. So big, in fact, that 40.5 million Americans used teeth whitening products in 2018. But all of the chemicals in those products aren’t really good for the mouth or overall health for others reasons: bleach and artificial ingredients which can lead to enamel stripping and increased tooth sensitivity, which is also a big problem for Americans, affecting as much as 74 percent of the population.
Luckily, there are some effective natural ways to whiten teeth and protect dental health (hello, healthy gums!) without relying on chemicals and expensive products. Bonus: these can all naturally improve breath by killing the bacteria in the mouth that causes it.
01. Oil pulling with coconut
Oil pulling is the process of swishing oil around in your mouth, usually for 10 to 20 minutes. Why would you do this? Oils like coconut and sesame are antimicrobial, and this process of swishing and swirling the oil in the mouth can pull toxins and bacteria from the gums and other mouth tissues, removing them with the oil when you spit it out. This is a daily wellness habit for many and it has a side effect of whitening teeth, partly because it can remove surface stains from foods and beverages that cause yellowing.
To try oil pulling, use one tablespoon of oil and swish, push, pull, and otherwise move the oil throughout your mouth. If you’re new to it, you may need to just start with a few minutes and work your way up from there, since it can really give your mouth muscles a workout. When you’ve finished oil pulling, spit the oil out and discard it in a trash can—do not swallow and do not spit down a drain, as oils can lead to clogged drains and pipes.
Oil pulling can safely be done daily, and the good news is that coconut oil has a long shelf life, so just keep a jar next to your toothbrush for convenience.
This bright yellow spice is warm and earthy and not at all what you’d think would whiten teeth. After all, we aren’t trying to yellow them even more, right? Turmeric is antibacterial and fights inflammation, which is why it can help get gums pink and healthy instead of red and bleeding. It also works against stains and bacteria that are causing teeth to be yellow in the first place, so even though your mouth will look borderline fluorescent while you’re brushing with this, after you rinse it away, the results will be impressive, especially after you’ve been at it for a week or so.
To make a turmeric whitening paste, combine one tablespoon turmeric powder with three tablespoons of coconut oil that is melted. Stir together. You’re going to want a toothbrush dedicate for this purpose only, because it’s going to stain your toothbrush Oompa Loompa orange. Dip the brush into the mixture and get a generous amount. Brush your teeth and gums gently but thoroughly, rinse with water, and then brush as normal. Doing this once or twice a day can have some pretty impressive tooth whitening and overall mouth health results.
This method can be done daily, and you can mix up several servings’ worth of the paste—I usually make enough to last me a few weeks.
Similar to turmeric, charcoal—this black substance that threatens to stain your clothes and your bathroom countertop—can remove surface stains and disinfect your mouth at the same time.
Make a charcoal whitening paste by combining one capsule of charcoal (from a supplement, not the kind that is used to grill) with two tablespoons of melted coconut oil. Dip your toothbrush in the mixture and get scrubbing (gently, of course). Repeat daily for the whitening benefits. You can also buy charcoal toothpaste these days if you want to skip the mess of making your own. Rinse the charcoal away and brush as normal.
This mixture can be used daily, and the paste described above will last for about one to two weeks, depending on how often you brush with it and how much you use.
04. Baking Soda
Baking soda is a popular ingredient in natural toothpastes because it can help to get rid of surface staining, and it can also kill bacteria in the mouth. The downside to baking soda is that, while effective, it can increase tooth and gum sensitivity for many, so if you already struggle with this, skip the baking soda and try another option.
If you do want to use baking soda, either use a toothpaste that contains it, or make your own brushing paste by combining one teaspoon of baking soda with two teaspoons of water. Dip your wet toothbrush into the paste and brush as normal, rinsing well with water. You can also add peppermint or spearmint essential oil to this, just a drop or two, if you want that minty freshness in your mouth.
Using baking soda daily for awhile is safe, but if you notice any sensitivity with teeth or gums, try a different method, or limit to just a few times per week. Your baking soda paste will last for several weeks.
This essential oil has medicinal properties and is antibacterial—it works for natural dental care because it can kill bacteria in the mouth that cause things like gingivitis and periodontal disease. You can use either clove essential oil or ground clove (the same spice you use for cinnamon rolls, mmm) with similar benefits.
Clove works by removing stains that cause yellowing, while at the same time, creating a whiter appearance by helping to address red and bleeding gums. To use clove for mouth care, I like to make a paste that combines ground cloves, clove essential oil, and coconut oil (to add a smooth texture for brushing). Take two teaspoons of ground cloves, 2 teaspoons of melted coconut oil, and three to five drops of clove essential oil. Stir together and dip your toothbrush into it once a day for a thorough brushing of two minutes. Make sure you are gentle with your gums, since brushing hard will not get them cleaner, but will only exacerbate sensitivity and bleeding.
This clove paste can be used daily, unless any sensitivity occurs, in which case it’s better to use a few times per week. The clove paste recipe above will last for five to seven days before needing to make more.
A few precautions to consider
These natural whitening options are also great for fresh breath and healthy gums, but even good things can be taken too far. If you notice sensitivity in your mouth at all, stop using the method. Additionally, don’t go crazy and do a bunch of these at once, since it hasn’t really been tested to see if multiple whitening attempts daily, for a long time, is truly safe for the enamel.
I’d suggest giving each method a try and sticking with your favorite one. Personally, I love alternating between the clove and the charcoal. The best part is that I don’t have to give up my coffee and I don’t have to look like I drink three gallons a day—even if I do.