Toothpaste is a product that most people take for granted. The front of the tube clearly states what the product is intended to do, and we buy a toothpaste that claims it will meet our needs. Sensitive teeth? Looking for a whitening boost? Want fresh breath? We just grab the tube that speaks to us, toss it in our shopping cart, and go about our merry way.
If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients in toothpaste, what they actually are and what they do may not be overwhelmingly apparent. Since toothpaste isn’t something that we eat, we don’t look at the ingredients list the same way we would look at nutrition facts. You might be surprised to find out what ingredients you preferred toothpaste contains, and even more surprised to find out that most of them don’t actually benefit your oral health.
All toothpastes, even those marketed as gentle, contain abrasive ingredients. If your toothpaste didn’t have any kind of grit, it wouldn’t be able to polish off the film of bacteria that leads to plaque buildup. It also couldn’t buff away surface stains before they set in and lead to significant yellowing.
Toothpastes abrasives are rated on a scale called the RDA (relative dental abrasivity) scale. The scale ranges from 0 to 250. Anything above 250 is considered too abrasive to be safe. Some toothpastes edge right up to that line. Other toothpastes try to keep their abrasive levels low, as the American Dental Association recommends toothpastes with RDA ratings at or below 70. A rating of 70 is perceived as the ideal balance of abrasive and gentle.
While toothpastes are required to provide a full list of their ingredients, they don’t always mention their RDA rating on the tube. Most consumers aren’t even aware of the RDA scale, so the information wouldn’t mean anything to them. The best way to find out how abrasive your toothpaste is would be to look up its rating online.
A surfactant is an ingredient designed to reduce surface tension between other ingredients and the surface they’re being applied to. The most commonly used surfactant in toothpastes is SLS, or sodium lauryl sulfate. SLS is used in body washes and shampoos to create a rich, foamy lather when you scrub.
That’s really the only purpose of SLS. It creates bubbles that strip away oils from surfaces. This usually isn’t a good thing. Although studies have claimed that very small amounts of SLS are safe for skin contact for short periods of time, those same studies recognize SLS as a mild to moderate irritant.
SLS does a little too well at stripping away the necessary oils that our skin and scalp use to protect themselves. They leave behind very dry surfaces with no natural form of protection. Many people find that toothpastes with SLS leave them with a dry mouth or exacerbate the pain of canker sores.
Fluoride is added to most toothpastes at the recommendation of the American Dental Association. Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in almost everything that comes from the earth - including the earth itself. Fluoride is a component of your teeth and your bones, and your teeth are receptive to more of it. Fluoride is used to fortify enamel and prevent cavities by reintroducing lost, damaged, or eroded minerals to the teeth.
While fluoride is generally recognized as safe in small amounts, some people try to avoid added fluoride in their oral care products. Fluoride is added to the tap water we drink, bathe, and cook with. It also naturally occurs in many foods and drinks, like shellfish, tea, and coffee. Trace amounts are found in fruits and vegetables grown in the ground, as they pull it up from the earth when they’re soaking up water.
Since we’re already getting small amounts of fluoride from lots of other places, a lot of modern consumers don’t feel that added fluoride is necessary. Very high amounts of fluoride can lead to accumulating deposits that may cause conditions like dental fluorosis or skeletal fluorosis.
Who doesn’t want the perfect smile? Whitening toothpastes commonly utilize peroxide as a whitening agent. It’s the same kind of peroxide your mom put on your cuts and scrapes when you were a kid. Peroxide is excellent at lightening anything it comes into contact with. In fact, it’s the active ingredient in hair bleach that removes pigment to leave behind a platinum white tone.
If you’ve ever bleached your hair before (or heard the horror stories), you know that bleaching causes damage, drying, and sometimes severe breakage. It leaves the hair porous and weak. That’s exactly what peroxide does to your teeth.
Although the peroxide in your whitening toothpaste is at much lower concentrations than the peroxide in hair whitening products, it still works by making your teeth porous and removing the pigment of the stains. This damages your enamel and, over time, can lead to painful tooth sensitivity and tooth erosion.
Xylitol is a sweetener used in many sugar free varieties of gum and many toothpastes. We often hear warnings of the dangers of sweeteners, but xylitol seems to be the exception to the rule. In addition to providing gum and toothpaste with a sweet taste, xylitol leaves behind a film. This film prevents bacteria from sticking to the teeth.
The bacteria in your mouth create their own sticky, slimy film called a matrix. They use this matrix to hang around for longer than they need to, accumulating debris and leading to the accumulation of plaque. Xylitol doesn’t contain any bacteria, and it leaves its film behind first. Bacteria cannot create their film over the film the xylitol lays down, and a crisis is averted.
Xylitol also changes the PH of your saliva, raising it to or above 7. When this happens, calcium and phosphates become active in your saliva. You want as much of these helpful minerals in your saliva as possible. As your saliva continuously washes over your teeth, they’re getting small hits of the minerals they need to naturally fortify themselves. Your enamel will subtly restore itself for a few hours after you use a xylitol toothpaste or chew xylitol gum - as long as you don’t eat too soon thereafter.
Most toothpaste do not contain any antibacterial ingredients. The majority of toothpastes are designed to remove bacteria from the mouth, rather than killing the bacteria they come into contact with. The few exceptions are triclosan and zinc chloride.
There is only one major brand of toothpaste containing triclosan on the market. The FDA requires every toothpaste formula containing triclosan to be presented and studied for efficacy. All but the exception of one brand was willing to stand up to the scrutiny. While the FDA ultimately accepted the brand’s request to put their triclosan toothpaste on store shelves, they do maintain that evidence of triclosan’s ability to improve oral health is barely anecdotal.
Natural toothpastes sometimes utilize natural antibacterial ingredients like lavender, tea tree oil, goldenseal, or silver. Natural antibacterial herbs work to gently cleanse the mouth, and nano silver works to break down the cell walls of bacteria.
Fluoride is considered a remineralizing ingredient. Toothpastes without fluoride often use alternative remineralizing ingredients, like calcium derivatives or hydroxyapatite crystals. Most of these minerals are naturally sourced. Many of the minerals used to remineralize teeth can be found in coral.
Colors and Flavors
Colors make products more appealing. Imagine strawberry ice cream that wasn’t a vibrant shade of pink. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with improving the color of a product, but most major toothpaste companies do so through the use of artificial dyes. Putting dyes in your mouth, particularly if you’re trying to restore weakened, porous enamel, may not be the best idea. Colors from natural sources may be a safer alternative, but they still aren’t necessary.
Flavors fall into the same category. Many companies use artificial flavors in toothpastes, particularly if those toothpastes are designed to incentivize young kids to brush more. Toothpaste that tastes like cotton candy is a little more fun to a five year old than toothpaste that tastes like plain natural mint.
Flavors can also be derived from natural sources. Essential oils, especially mint essential oils, have beneficial pain relief and antibacterial properties. These flavors work double duty in your toothpaste.
A lot of toothpaste contains a lot of junk. Most of the ingredients in major toothpaste brands don’t actually need to be there. Brushing your teeth is intended to be an experience that improves your health. There’s no need for bright blue dyes, big lathery suds, and artificial candy flavors. It’s more important that your toothpaste works for you.
Before you buy, read the back of the box. If you notice that your toothpaste is full of ingredients you don’t understand, it might be time to rethink your preferred brand.
Source 1 - SLS as an irritant
Source 2- xylitol study
Source 3- FDA / triclosan