Charcoal can help you get a brighter smile when used sparingly—just don’t use it every day.

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I’m a big teeth person. When I meet someone new, the first thing I take notice of is his or her smile. So naturally, I’m obsessed with keeping my own clean and white. Fed up with how expensive whitening strips were and flabbergasted at the four-digit figure my dentist quoted me for professional teeth whitening, I recently started looking for an alternative way to make my smile a little brighter. An Amazon search for teeth whitening products turned up an interesting little pot of charcoal powder that had nearly 1,500 five-star reviews. I'd heard about charcoal toothpaste before, but had never tried it or anything like it. Since the charcoal powder was only $15, I decided I’d give it a try.

When my purchase arrived the next day, I opened the container, cautiously. The powder inside looked like fine black dirt—the stuff you might have eaten as a child but know better than to try as an adult. My husband was skeptical to say the least. Actually, he wouldn’t touch it. Not wanting to stain my Sonicare, I grabbed a new manual toothbrush, wet the bristles, dipped them in the powder and brushed my teeth as I normally would. Surprisingly, neither the taste nor the texture was as off-putting as I'd expected it to be, though it did feel a little like brushing with chalk, and left me looking like I’d devoured an entire row of Oreos (without the sugar rush). This particular powder was mint flavored, and while it didn’t lather like regular toothpaste, it did leave my teeth feeling squeaky clean after a good rinse. The best part: They looked a tiny bit brighter after just one use.

It's been about six months since I started my charcoal powder regimen, and my teeth have never been whiter. I use regular whitening toothpaste to brush my teeth in every morning and evening, and keep up my daily flossing routine, but once a week or so I also brush with charcoal after lunch. The pot I bought isn’t even half gone yet, so it’s been well worth the $15 investment—a little goes a long way.

How does it work? Activated charcoal has natural adhesive qualities that allow it to bind with surface-staining items like coffee, wine and plaque, removing them from the surface of the teeth. Though I’ve found brushing with charcoal powder to be effective for whitening my smile, dentists are divided on whether it’s safe for tooth enamel. A September 2017 study by the Journal of the American Dental Association found insufficient data to prove its efficacy and safety, recommending patients be cautious in their use of activated charcoal on teeth. And Dr. Andrei Moldoveanu, a dentist at Louisville-based Modern Family Dentistry, says while charcoal products lack the harsh peroxide and chemicals of conventional whitening products, their abrasive texture may cause damage to the enamel surface with frequent use.

While the jury’s still out on long-term effects, for the time being I’m comfortable using charcoal sparingly to get that movie-star smile. Here are a few charcoal whitening products to consider if you want to try it yourself.

Dental Duty Whitening Charcoal Powder

This 4.8-ounce container is meant to be a six-month supply, but using it less frequently will make it last much longer. It’s made in the USA from 100-percent vegan ingredients and with no harmful chemicals, artificial colors, or flavors, plus it’s safe for sensitive teeth. It’s also guaranteed: If you don’t see whitening results, the company promises your money back. (Take my advice: A quick rinse of your sink after brushing will prevent staining.)

To buy: $15,

Activated Charcoal Whitening Toothpaste

Created by a mother for her daughter, who was especially prone to cavities, this vegan, gluten-free, and non-GMO toothpaste is made from a mix of activated coconut-shell charcoal, calcium bentonite clay, organic orange peel extract, and mint extract. Gentle and effective, it packs a mouth-cleaning, teeth-whitening punch for adults and kids alike.

To buy: $10,

Burst Sonic Toothbrush

This electric toothbrush (which comes in a travel case) has a brush head made from charcoal bristles to absorb impurities. It has three brushing modes—whitening, sensitive, and massage—and a two-minute timer. It also has an optional subscription service, meaning you can get a fresh brush head delivered every quarter ($6 each), so you won’t forget to change it out.

To buy: $70,