Well Being

Toothpaste: What’s In It (And What To Avoid)

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toothpaste ingredients to avoid

Today in things that apparently contain scary, potentially-dangerous inactive ingredients and chemicals: toothpaste. And not just because of the fluoride.

The child of a serious Earth-loving hippie, I tend to opt for eco-friendly beauty and cleaning products. Unfortunately, I'm also someone who has terrible, weak teeth and no healthcare, so when it comes to oral health, I usually tend to take the non-green road and buy whatever promises to prevent cavities, renew enamel, and generally keep my teeth from falling out of my face.

Because, to be honest, I traditionally don't really trust that the natural, organic, and otherwise alternative stuff can do the job–I really like that fluoride actually prevents cavities, which natural toothpastes aren't legally allowed to claim. But after I ran out the last time, I decided to look more closely into what goes into conventional toothpaste. And, it turns out that, aside the inactive or secondary ingredients like water, minty-fresh flavorants, mica or baking soda (or other abrasives), and propylene glycol (which keeps it from turning into a powder, is basically antifreeze, but hasn't really been shown to be dangerous in small quantities), it's not pretty. But with a little wise label-reading, you can avoid the worst of the worst.

I'm not going to get into the fluoride debate–for the record, fluoride is both excellent at preventing decay but also kind of a deadly poison, which means that that debate gets some people seriously riled up, and truly, it's your choice to make as a consumer–but I will say that this particular active ingredient is not the only reason to concerned about what's going onto your pearly whites (and, incidentally, into your mouth and down your throat). Here's what I've found can sometimes lurk in your toothpaste:

  • Tin: Yup, tin. Toxic, toxic tin. It's found in one of the three kinds of recognized fluorides under the name stannous fluoride.  If you're not going the fluoride-free route, it's best to pick one of the other, non-tin fluorides, like sodium monofluorophosphate, which is less toxic. Or, go fluoride-free, which, while better than not brushing at all, can't claim to prevent tooth decay.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): You know that pesticide that's also widely used in shampoo? It still hasn't exactly been deemed “safe.” In fact, it has been linked to cell degeneration and ulcers (hello, canker sores!)–though myths about its links to cancer are just that: myths. Still, it's become a chemical pariah and a lot of companies are dropping it as a thickening/lathering agent, which means its easier than ever to just buy something that doesn't contain it. But watch out: even some natural toothpastes like Tom's of Maine can contain SLS.
  • Artificial sweeteners and dyes: You don't drink Diet Coke because of the Sucralose and the “caramel color“…so why are you scrubbing sweeteners and dyes all over your teeth? Many toothpastes contain artificial sweeteners and colors to make them taste better and look “minty fresh.” The US has always dragged its heels when it comes to banning potentially unsafe sweeteners–but Canada has firmly said no to saccharin. Take a leaf from Canada's book and look for toothpastes that aren't sweetened. There are some. And regarding dyes, consumer groups have begged the US government to ban some of the ones that are banned elsewhere (like Blue 1 and 2), but it's the same story. just look for toothpastes that aren't brightly colored and don't contain “mouthwash strips” or anything like that.
  • Triclosan: Here's an icky one. The FDA considers triclosan a pesticide, and admits that, in animal studies, it has been found to disrupt hormones. They've been reconsidering it, lately–and it may end up getting banned for good, eventually–but what's important to note is that it's kind of not necessary. It's used in toothpaste to stop gingivitis. However, flossing, too, helps stop gingivitis. So…maybe opt for floss and not this possibly toxic ingredient.

The bottom line is this: to keep your teeth shiny and bright, some ingredients may help get them pearly and cavity-free. But others, like fake sweeteners, dyes, and pesticides just aren't necessary–and if you know what to look for, you can keep them out of your oral hygiene regimen.

Image: Robert Adrian Hillman via Shutterstock