You might not think much about the ingredients in your toothpaste compared to the ingredients in your food or even other personal care products, but those pea-sized dollops on your toothbrush twice a day add up.
Over the course of a lifetime, the average American uses about 20 gallons of toothpaste,1 and even if you spit most of it out, some of the chemicals it contains make their way into your bloodstream.
Your mouth is actually one of the most absorbent places in your entire body. This is why some medications are administered sublingually, or under your tongue.
While you're dutifully brushing and swishing, the ingredients in your toothpaste enter your mouth and gums, which are the gateway to every system in your body."2
This is why you need to be very careful when choosing toothpaste. Many popular brands contain questionable ingredients that you're far better off avoiding.
The popular toothpaste Colgate Total contains an antibacterial chemical called triclosan, which allows the company to tout it as the "only toothpaste approved by the FDA to help fight plaque and gingivitis."3
But while triclosan has been shown to help prevent gingivitis, the benefit comes at a steep price. The chemical has been linked to concerns over antibiotic resistance and endocrine disruption.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are a serious concern, as they can promote a wide variety of health problems, including breast, ovarian, prostate, and testicular cancer, preterm and low birth weight babies, precocious puberty in girls, and undescended testicles in boys.
Some animal studies showed that triclosan caused fetal bone malformations in mice and rats, which may hint at hormonal effects. Further, triclosan may interfere with a type of cell signaling in brain, heart, and other cells, such that researchers noted it "may not be worth potential risks."4
The chemical has also been linked to cancer, with research finding triclosan may promote breast cancer progression.5 The state of Minnesota has already banned most uses of triclosan, but it's still widely sold across the US in toothpaste, hand soap, makeup, and more.
Toothpaste appears to be one of the most potent delivery vehicles for the chemical, as research found people who brushed their teeth with Colgate Total had more than five times as much triclosan in their urine as those who did not.6
2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Many toothpastes contain surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), or sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). Surfactants are chemicals responsible for the foaming action of the toothpaste, but they also interfere with the functioning of your taste buds by breaking up the phospholipids on your tongue.
This enhances bitter tastes and is thought to be the reason why everything tastes so bad right after you've brushed your teeth.
Not to mention, SLS has even been linked to skin irritation and painful canker sores, with research suggesting an SLS-free toothpaste should be used for people with recurring sores.7
However, one of the main problems with SLS is that the manufacturing process (ethoxylation) results in it being potentially contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic byproduct.8 The manufacturing process also releases carcinogenic volatile organic compounds into the environment.
SLS is also registered as an insecticide and may have toxic effects to marine life, including fish, insects, and crustaceans.9
The manufacturers actually tried to get approval to market SLS as a pesticide for organic farmers, but the application was denied because of its potential for environmental damage.10
3. Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are often added to commercial toothpastes. Aspartame is primarily made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The phenylalanine has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group, which provides the majority of the sweetness.
That phenylalanine methyl bond, called a methyl ester, is very weak, which allows the methyl group on the phenylalanine to easily break off and form methanol. You may have heard the claim that aspartame is harmless because methanol is also found in fruits and vegetables.
However, in fruits and vegetables, the methanol is firmly bonded to pectin, allowing it to be safely passed through your digestive tract. Not so with the methanol created by aspartame; there it's not bonded to anything that can help eliminate it from your body.
That's problem number one.
Problem number two relates to the fact that humans are the only mammals who are NOT equipped with a protective biological mechanism that breaks down methanol into harmless formic acid.
In humans, the methyl alcohol travels through your blood vessels into sensitive areas, such as your brain, where the methanol is converted to formaldehyde. And since there's no catalase present, the formaldehyde is free to cause enormous damage in your tissues.
Symptoms from methanol poisoning are many, and include headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness, and shooting pains in the extremities, behavioral disturbances, and neuritis.
Fluoride has long been heralded as the answer to decaying teeth, but it's been receiving increasing scrutiny in recent years, and for good reason. A groundbreaking study published in the journal Langmuir11 uncovered that the supposedly beneficial fluorapatite layer formed on your teeth from fluoride is a mere six nanometers thick.
To understand just how thin this is, you'd need 10,000 of these layers to get the width of a strand of your hair! Scientists now question whether this ultra-thin layer can actually protect your enamel and provide any discernible benefit, considering the fact that it is quickly eliminated by simple chewing. They wrote:
"… [I]t has to be asked whether such narrow… layers really can act as protective layers for the enamel."
In fact, toothpaste that contains the naturally occurring cacao extract theobromine better repaired and re-mineralized exposed dentin (the tissue that makes up the bulk of your teeth below the enamel) than fluoride toothpaste, according to one study.12
Not to mention, fluoride toothpaste is often the largest single source of fluoride intake for young children and is a major risk factor for disfiguring dental fluorosis. This is because children swallow a large amount of the paste that they put in their mouth.
In fact, research has shown that it is not uncommon for young children to swallow more fluoride from toothpaste alone than is recommended as an entire day's ingestion from all sources.13
Swallowing fluoride, as is the case with fluoridated drinking water, is especially detrimental to your health, as the science clearly demonstrates that fluoride is a toxic chemical that accumulates in your tissues over time, wreaks havoc with enzymes, and produces a number of serious adverse health effects, including neurological and endocrine dysfunction.
Children are particularly at risk for adverse effects of overexposure. If you have a young child, therefore, it's recommended that you use a non-fluoride toothpaste, although I recommend the same for adults as well.
5. Propylene Glycol
Propylene glycol is a type of mineral oil that, in the industrial grade, is used in antifreeze, paints, enamels, and airplane de-icers. The pharmaceutical-grade form is used in many personal care products, including toothpaste, as a surfactant. Research on the safety of propylene glycol in personal care products is lacking, although it's a known skin, eye, and lung irritant and may cause organ system toxicity.14 This is clearly not a substance you want to be brushing your teeth with.
6. Diethanolamine (DEA)
DEA is found in many foaming products such as toothpaste. It's a known hormone disrupter and can react with other ingredients to form a potential carcinogen called NDEA (N-nitrosodiethanolamine), which is readily absorbed through the skin and has been linked with cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver, and bladder.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks DEA as a number 10 in its cosmetics database (the most toxic score) due to high concerns of organ system toxicity, contamination concerns and irritation, along with moderate cancer risk. The California Environmental Protection Agency lists DEA as a possible human carcinogen.15
Microbeads are tiny plastic pellets found in body washes, facial scrubs, toothpaste, and more. The microbeads go down your drain, through the filters at most wastewater treatment plants, and out into the environment. Plastic microbeads absorb toxins from the water and are eaten by a wide variety of marine life and, ultimately, by humans as well. There's good reason to boycott any toothpaste containing microbeads, even aside from the obvious environmental threat. Last year, a Dallas dental hygienist reported finding the microbeads in patients' teeth.
The bits were found in Crest microbead toothpaste and were getting trapped under patients' gums. This gives food and bacteria an entrance to your gum line, which could actually cause gum disease.16 Procter & Gamble, which makes Crest, reported they would stop using the microbeads by 2016 as a result. But while it seems the use of microbeads is on its way out, the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) is lobbying to have microbeads made from biodegradable plastic such as polylactic acid (PLA) remain in personal care products.
When it comes to maintaining good oral health, brushing and flossing are important, but there's no denying the role of your diet as well. Sugar, in particular, is a primary culprit. As reported by Medical News Today:21
"There is overwhelming evidence that sugars are the most important dietary factor in dental disease. Specifically, it is the amount and frequency of free sugars consumed that determine the severity of decay… Consuming a variety of foods rich in nutrients and avoiding those that contain sugars and starches are important for keeping teeth and gums healthy… Sugar and sweets intake should be limited, as the bacteria in the mouth need sugar to produce the acids that weaken enamel and damage teeth.
Each time you expose your teeth to sugar the demineralization process begins, and it can take up to an hour for the mouth to return to normal non-acidic PH conditions."
It helps to remember that achieving oral health is really about promoting balance among the bacteria in your mouth, or your oral microbiome. Cutting way back on sugar is crucial for this process, and I've also noticed success in adding fermented vegetables. I used to be severely challenged with plaque — so much so I required very frequent visits to the dental hygienist just to keep up with it. Once I started adding fermented vegetables regularly to my diet however, the plaque buildup was dramatically reduced. Dr. Gerry Curatola, founder of Rejuvenation Dentistry, who has over 30 years' experience in biological dentistry, explained:
"You have to think about promoting balance… We've looked at organic gardening and the environment around us and even eating organic foods. I'd like everyone to think about doing 'organic gardening' in the mouth. The way you do that is through a strong, healthy, and balanced nutritional protocol. I call it triple-A nutrition – alkalizing, antioxidant-rich, and anti-inflammatory. People should know what nutritional factors are inflammatory. There are inflammatory triggers, whether it's gluten, dairy, and a number of others. They can vary for different individuals."
In addition to an alkalizing, antioxidant-rich, and anti-inflammatory diet, he recommends eliminating detergent-based products such as toothpaste and antibacterial and alcohol-based mouthwashes.
We know that eating highly processed foods and sugar certainly causes and worsens dental decay in humans, but there is also evidence of tooth decay in ancient populations, long before there was exposure to refined sugar and white flour, as well as among wild animals today. Even some dolphins, which generally eat no carbohydrates whatsoever — preferring only fish, squid, and crustaceans — have problems with tooth decay. So, clearly, simply following a healthy diet is not enough to explain this phenomenon or else there would be no dental decay in ancient peoples or wildlife.
In addition to consuming foods that are part of a healthy diet (and avoiding processed foods and refined sugar), make sure you are getting plenty of omega-3 fats. The latest research suggests even moderate amounts of omega-3 fats may help ward off gum disease. My favorite source of high-quality animal-based omega-3 fat is krill oil. You'll also want to make sure you consume a diet rich in fresh, whole foods, fermented vegetables, and grass-fed meats, which will ensure you're getting plenty of the minerals that are so important for strong bones and teeth.
Practicing twice daily brushing and flossing, along with regular cleanings by a biological dentist and hygienist, will ensure that your teeth and gums are as healthy as they can be. You may also want to consider oil pulling with coconut oil, which is a powerful inhibitor of a large variety of pathogenic organisms. Avoid fluoridated water and fluoridated toothpaste, as well as most commercial toothpaste brands. Instead use natural non-fluoride toothpaste, either homemade or from a reputable brand.