We’ve heard it over and over as children: brush your teeth twice a day.
We typically apply a modest dose of toothpaste to our soft-bristled toothbrush and give our teeth a deep, whitening clean. It’s one of those classic daily staples, yet rarely does anyone ask themselves the question: what is toothpaste made of, anyway?
Well, let me tell you, we sure have come a long way from Egyptian times — care to put some powdered ashes of ox’s hooves on your toothbrush? We thought so…
But First: What’s It Good For?
Before we dissect a toothpaste tube, we should first lay out the purpose of toothpaste. We all intuitively understand what it’s for — who would want to walk around with a tangible film of bacteria on their teeth, not to mention bad breath and risk of gum disease?
What happens is that when we feast, bacteria feasts and excretes acids. The formal name for this excretion is plaque. Left alone, this substance eats away at your tooth enamel and hardens into tartar, which can cause a cavity in your tooth and irritate your gums.
So, first and foremost, brushing our teeth with a toothbrush scrubs this buildup away. If we keep putting it off (we’ve all had those nights), plaque can harden into tartar, that white calcium deposit only a pricey dentist visit can remove.
A scrubbing motion, plus many of the special ingredients we list below, can prevent gingivitis, the condition of inflamed gums, and save you thousands in treating a cavity.
Toothpaste Ingredients: What’s in the Tube
Put on your nerd goggles. We’re breaking down the constituents by category. We’ll get in the nitty-gritty with specific ingredients and their functions. We’ll review toothpaste’s common chemicals and some fun facts on how they’re derived. We’ll try to reach every nook and cranny.
So here’s the formula, but don’t try making this at home.
Humectant Systems: Keeping it Wet
Leave it to the lab coats to use a word like “humectant,” but as you can probably tell, it means keeping that paste humid.
Starting with the most obvious, we have water. That’s right, H2O makes up 20 to 42% of toothpaste.
While water alone may evaporate over time, the addition of sugar alcohols in most toothpastes helps keep the paste from drying out. They also hold the toothpaste together in that goo-like state and endow the toothpaste with some sweetness, only with close to zero calories.
Making up a third or more of your tube goop are so-called abrasives that help scrub and polish those pearly whites. Composed of minerals with chemical names like CaCO3, you can think of abrasives as sandpaper.
Like sandpaper, toothpastes are graded on their “scrubbiness” indicated by their RDA value (relative dentin abrasiveness). It’s like different grits of sandpaper. Dentists recommend an RDA value below 250.
In our toothpaste, we use calcium carbonate, found abundantly in nature, and silica, which comes from sand.
Certain abrasives present in toothpaste act like fine sandpaper. These ingredients polish teeth, removing surface stains and promoting teeth whitening. Not vital to the health of your teeth, this polishing action serves a more cosmetic function. Thank Hollywood for those beauty standards!
If you were thinking about sudsing laundry detergent, you wouldn’t be wrong. In some ways, the detergents in toothpaste act the same way, distributing all elements evenly throughout the toothpaste.
Many toothpastes contain sodium lauryl sulfate, a fossil fuel-derived and cheap but harsh foaming chemical that can dry your mouth and is linked to canker sores. For that reason Public Goods Toothpaste relies on mild coconut-derived detergents.
Fluoride (and Fluoride Alternatives)
Since the ’50s, most brands of toothpaste have been formulated with sodium fluoride as an active ingredient, a chemical that was discovered to remineralize teeth. Our tooth enamel, after all, is mostly made up of calcium.
Fluoride can bind additional minerals — such as calcium and magnesium — to the skin of our teeth (pun not intended, but enjoyed). Acids in our everyday diet, only spurred by our love of sugar, can wear away at this enamel.
Now, without wading too deep into the debate, there have always been a minority of citizens and scientists alike who question both the efficacy and safety of fluoride. While some say fluoride is the only active ingredient in toothpaste with a proven track record for oral care, others claim older studies were biased and newer studies don’t show fluoride having as strong an effect as once thought.
For that reason, we have chosen to formulate our natural toothpaste with xylitol instead of fluoride. A sugar alcohol often sourced from birch trees, xylitol tastes sweet. But unlike sugar, it isn’t converted in the mouth to acids that can promote tooth decay. While it does not remineralize teeth the way fluoride toothpaste does, some studies have indicated that it can slow the growth of the bacteria most associated with tooth decay.
This one is pretty simple. When you think of toothpaste, what flavor comes to mind? Yep, peppermint.
With few exceptions, most toothpaste is flavored with peppermint, and sometimes its cousins, spearmint and wintergreen. Some flavorants (let’s just call them flavors?) verge on the exotic, such as anise, fennel and pine, and others use artificial flavors. But we kept it simple and honest with peppermint oil, keeping your breath minty fresh.
Treating Bad Breath
And that brings us to bad breath. While the supposed goal is to prevent cavities and improve oral health, for some, that’s not the primary reward of brushing our teeth.
It seems that half of the reward is running your tongue over those freshly polished pearls, plus that lingering minty breath that wakes you up and puts a little pep in your step and gives you focus.
But what is it about peppermint? Well, that deserves its own article, but we’ll just mention it has strong antibacterial properties — the kind that can make all the difference in landing that second date, because, well, it wasn’t my idea to order nachos at the movies.
Antibacterial Agents (And Why We Don’t Use Them)
If you were wondering about troublesome chemicals in toothpaste, some toothpastes can be found containing triclosan, an industrial-grade antibacterial ingredient. While it’s been shown to be effective in reducing plaque build-up and fighting gingivitis, it’s not good stuff.
Shown to alter hormone regulation in animals and contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs, it may not be present in large enough amounts in toothpaste to be harmful, but we’re not willing to take that chance. It just seems like overkill, killing the good bacteria with the bad.
If you were worried about gum health, many of the ingredients we’ve covered so far kill two birds with one stone. It’s been demonstrated that simple ingredients, like the essential oils found in our formula, kill the bacteria responsible for gingivitis.
Besides the typical functions of toothpaste, some variations are made to tackle other oral hygiene issues or special needs.
First, you have kids’ toothpaste. Besides the fun Hello Kitty tube, these toothpastes feature milder fruit flavors kids can get excited about. In addition, they often contain less fluoride.
Then you have whitening toothpastes containing special abrasives as well as chemicals such as peroxide or titanium dioxide. However, both chemicals used for whitening have their opponents. While whitening toothpastes cannot whiten teeth with internal discoloration, they are visibly effective in removing surface stains. Unfortunately, using too many of these abrasives and chemicals can result in eroding enamel.
Which brings us to the last category of special toothpastes: those formulated for sensitive teeth. Whether caused by excessive brushing, chemicals, or a pre-existing condition, tooth sensitivity can be painful, especially when drinking hot or cold beverages or brushing with typical toothpastes. Sensitive formulas are milder, and work by covering up tiny holes near the gumline of the tooth or by desensitizing the nerve endings in those holes.
And That’s Basically It!
So there you have it. We’ve taken you on a tour of toothpaste. We hope it was as fun as The Magic School Bus, but we understand if this wasn’t exactly a tooth fairy tale.
Together, we’ve learned what toothpaste is made of — what keeps it moist (I just had to use that word), what gives it grit and bubble bath qualities.
We successfully avoided the fluoride rabbithole and moved on to minty pastures. Now, you probably know more about toothpaste than you care to know. I kind of want to go brush my teeth again.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.Get Your Free Guide