Once it’s out of the tube there is no way to put it back. I get the rationale we don’t eat toothpaste, but it goes in your mouth, and some of it trickles down the throat each time you brush. Dentists recommend brushing with toothpaste for healthy teeth, but decline to comment about the chemicals in the products they promote. We’re going to squeeze out the ingredients and discover… what’s in your toothpaste?
Egyptians are believed to have started using a paste around 5000 BC, before toothbrushes were invented. Ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have used toothpastes, and people in China and India first used toothpaste around 500 BC.
People across the ages have the same basic needs. Ancient people needed toothpaste for the same reasons we do today, to clean teeth and gums while whitening teeth and freshening breath. The ingredients of ancient toothpaste were different, they were natural. I’m not sure I want to use a powder of ox hooves, or ashes and burnt eggshells combined with pumice. The Greeks and Romans favored a more abrasive paste of crushed bones and oyster shells. The Chinese used a variety of herbs mints, and ginseng.
Modern toothpaste began in England, in the 1800’s with soap, chalk, and betel nut. The seeds were boiled, dried, and mixed with the nut husks for children, but mixed with the actual nuts for adults. They made a “quid” which called for a mixture of three ingredients. The second ingredient being some kind of plant: pepper, peppermint or mustard. The third ingredient being a rock mineral-lime, usually from limestone. It was used as toothpaste in various parts of the world, but early users were dead wrong about its use, as it later became known as a “recreational” drug, a stimulant. Regular and overuse caused early death.
Toothpaste contained soap until 1945. After that it was replaced with other ingredients to make a paste. What’s in there today?
The American Dental Association offers a list of toothpaste ingredients:
- Mild abrasives to remove debris and stains
- Fluoride to strengthen tooth enamel and remineralize tooth decay.
- Humectants to prevent water loss in toothpaste
- Flavoring agents, such as saccharin and other sweeteners for taste.
- Thickening agents to stabilize the formula like colloids and natural gums
- Detergents to create foaming action that include sodium lauryl sulfate
Interestingly boar bristles were some of the earliest toothbrushes. The first mass produced toothbrush was made by William Addis of Clerkenwell, England around 1780. America began mass producing toothbrushes around 1885. The ADA wants us to pair toothpaste and toothbrush to brush at least twice a day, and glosses over the ingredients, without saying what’s in them.
Let’s start with a fun video The Superhero of Cavity Fighting 2:53minutes.
Mild abrasives are used to help get the gunk out. Ancient Egyptians used ox hooves, burnt eggshells and pumice. Today our abrasives are much milder. Baking soda is the most natural. Hydrated silica is the most common. It is made of quartz, sand and flint. Scratching the tooth surface could cause scratches and severe wear. Don’t brush too vigorously, but be sure to remove debris and particles.
Fluoride is recommended to strengthen tooth decay. Be careful of using too much of a good thing. It can be dangerous to young kids and babies. Remember back to that first year of life? If your babies used formula you probably mixed it with distilled or nursery water. That’s because fluoride is commonly found in drinking water. Too much fluoride too early can cause stains on teeth. In the US all toothpaste containing fluoride must also carry a poison warning. Colgate says that a child old enough to spit is old enough for fluoride toothpaste, but you might want to consult your dentist too.
Humectants are chemicals that keep toothpaste soft. They give toothpaste its texture as well as retain moisture so that your toothpaste does not dry out. Glycerin, sorbitol, and water are common humectants. They can also cause diarrhea if swallowed.
Flavoring agents like saccharin and aspartame are often included. Can you imagine what the Ancient concoction of toothpaste tasted like? It must have tasted awful. Commercial toothpaste includes artificial sugars and sugar alcohol. Isn’t it ironic?
Thickening agents like seaweed colloids, carrageenan, cellulose gum, guar gum and xanthan gum are common thickening agents. The ADA says their safe, and most experts agree. Xanthan gum may cause bloating and gas, or in powder form may cause respiratory distress.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is the foaming agent found in toothpaste. It is present in herbicides, insecticides and causes ulcers. SLS is used to remove oily stains and residues. It is found in high concentrations in industrial products like engine degreasers, floor cleaners and car wash products. If SLS can clean dirty jobs, then I don’t want it in my mouth, even in a miniscule amount.
In addition to the six ingredients the AMA acknowledges, there are a couple more worth mentioning.
Triclosan is a pesticide found in many toothpastes. Companies that manufacture it claim it is safe, but the EPA scores it as a human health and environmental risk. Taken in small amounts internally can be a big deal, causing cold sweats, circulatory issues and convulsions. Overtime it can damage the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs. Colgate used to advertise it prominently to fight plaque and gingivitis. After seeing the error of its ways a couple of years ago it now advertises its product to be triclosan free.
Red, yellow, and FD&C Blue Dye No. 2 add a full body color or a stripe to toothpaste, but it is probably synthetic. It causes hyperactivity in children, allergic reactions, and even cancer. The FDA is investigating these connections.
Natural commercial toothpastes are available, but they are small and cost around $5 per tube. If you are a DIYer, you can make your own. There you have it. The toothpaste is out of the tube.
As you go down the supermarket aisle which toothpaste will you put in your cart?
Other articles in the series:
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