Is natural toothpaste worth the price tag

Read the fine print, and you’ll find some "natural" toothpastes may not be as pure as you think.
 
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  • Updated:1 Aug 2009
 

01 .Introduction

Toothbrushes & paste

In brief

  • “Natural” and “herbal” toothpastes are now found not only in health food stores, but also chemists and supermarkets.
  • Many of the so-called “natural” brands aren’t so different from conventional toothpaste, yet they’re often far more expensive.
  • The most important ingredient in toothpaste is fluoride, which is critical to maintaining healthy teeth.

A trip down any supermarket aisle will reveal a mind-boggling array of toothpastes, with prices varying from $1.40 to $10. They sport shiny packaging and equally slick promises such as “extreme clean”, “breath-freshening strips” and “12 hours of protection”. Then there’s the growing market in alternative toothpastes, mainly catering to those hoping to avoid fluoride and other chemical additives conventional toothpastes generally contain.

However, many of the so-called “natural” or “herbal” products CHOICE found are made up of very similar ingredients to their mainstream counterparts, the main omission being fluoride. Yet you can easily pay up to four times the price per 100gm for these alternatives. The most expensive herbal toothpaste we found was a staggering $12.

Please note: this information was current as of August 2009 but is still a useful guide today.


What's missing?

While the absence of fluoride is the common link in all the natural toothpastes we found, most experts argue this is the one vital ingredient toothpaste should contain. Philippa Sawyer, a paediatric dentist and spokesperson for the Australian Dental Association, and Professor Mike Morgan, Chair of Population Oral Health at the Melbourne Dental School, Melbourne University, both advise against fluoride-free toothpastes. In fact, Morgan believes there are just two things to consider in your purchasing decision. “Look for toothpaste that has fluoride in it; after that the decision should really just be driven by price.”

While Sawyer believes people usually choose natural toothpaste because they want to avoid fluoride and the foaming agent sodium lauryl sulphate, we found many of the natural and herbal toothpastes on the market contain sodium lauryl sulphate or an alternative detergent. Sawyer says this can irritate the mouth and make it sore, but only in a tiny percentage of people.

For sensitive mouths

If you’re prone to skin sensitivity aggravated by sodium lauryl sulphate it’s possible to find fluoridated toothpastes without it. Of the 21 natural toothpastes we found on the market, five contain sodium lauryl sulphate, while four more contain sodium lauryl sarcosinate which can also be an irritant. Another two brands use lauryl glucoside or lauryl polyglucose, which are far milder. Many use abrasives such as silica and various gums to bind the product together, as is the case with mainstream products. Many of the natural pastes contain sorbitol, which is used primarily as a humectant to keep the paste from drying out but is also an artificial sweetener.

CHOICE verdict

With such a wide range of toothpastes on the market it’s important to know what’s really necessary and what’s just marketing hype. The most important ingredient is fluoride, which is critical to maintaining healthy teeth. Most natural toothpastes are not going to provide the necessary fluoride and many will come with a hefty price tag to boot. If you use one of the natural toothpastes, we advise you read the packaging carefully and identify the various ingredients. It is also recommended you use a mouth rinse afterwards that contains fluoride.

 
 

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The antibacterial ingredient triclosan in some toothpaste claims to provide antibacterial protection for up to 12 hours after brushing. Concerns have been raised about its inclusion in toothpaste, however, and triclosan was recently reviewed by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessments Scheme (NICNAS). A spokesperson for NICNAS told CHOICE the levels of triclosan used in toothpastes in Australia are below those at which any detrimental health effects have been observed. None of the natural toothpastes we found contained triclosan.

Where mainstream toothpastes generally contain artificial flavours and colours, the natural products tend to use essential oils for flavour, such as:

  • peppermint
  • lemon
  • fennel
  • parsley

Most of the natural brands don’t use colouring, except one that contains titanium dioxide, the whitening agent used in most conventional toothpastes, two that use chlorophyll and another CI42090, an artificial colouring agent used to make products a brilliant blue. The truly herbal brands, which don’t contain many chemicals and include a smorgasbord of herbs, offer very little in the way of abrasives or plaque-resisting elements.

The experts CHOICE spoke to say such toothpastes will probably provide very little benefit to the teeth. While some natural toothpaste brands allow consumers to avoid certain ingredients, artificial flavours and colours, holistic dentist Prue King believes the most important element in dental care is a good brushing and flossing technique. “Toothpaste isn’t essential. It helps with the taste and freshness of breath afterwards.”

Translating the tube

Abrasives For efficient tooth cleaning, toothpaste needs to be mildly abrasive. The abrasives we found in natural toothpastes are calcium carbonate, calcium hydrogen phosphate, sodium bicarbonate, dicalcium phosphate dehydrate, silica and sodium chloride. Humectants stop toothpaste hardening when it’s exposed to air. The common humectants we found in natural toothpastes are polyethylene glycols, glycerol and sorbitol (also artificial sweeteners).

Binders disperse or swell in the presence of water and are used to stabilise the toothpaste by preventing separation of the solid and liquid phases. Binding agents in natural toothpaste include natural gums such as arabic, tragacanth, xanthan and carrageenan. We also found corn starch extract, CMC (sodium carboxymethyl cellulose) and cellulose.

Detergents lower the surface tension and therefore help loosen plaque deposits and emulsify or suspend the debris removed from the tooth surface during cleaning. The detergents we found in some natural toothpaste brands are sodium lauryl sulphate which, along with sodium lauryl sarcosinate, can irritate the skin. Lauryl polyglucose and lauryl glucoside are milder detergents.

Flavours found in natural toothpastes are peppermint, fennel or liquorice, and the essential oils anise, clove, caraway, pimento, eucalyptus, citrus, menthol, nutmeg, thyme, cinnamon, sweet orange.

Preservatives Microbial contamination is restricted by a low water activity and the inclusion of preservatives such as hydroxyl-benzoates or methyl-paraben. Antibacterial agents can be added to help prevent gingivitis. In natural toothpastes we found zinc oxide and totarol.

Colour While some natural toothpastes we found had no added colour, others use titanium oxide for white, chlorophyll for green and CI42090, an artificial blue colour.

Sweeteners Artificial sweeteners include sorbitol (which is also a humectant), glycerol, xylitol (which can help prevent decay), stevia and sodium saccharin.

03.Flouride - the facts

 

toothpaste and toothbrushesFluoride protects your teeth in three ways.

  • It improves the chemical structure of the enamel, making it more resistant to acid.
  • Reduces the ability of bacteria on your teeth to produce acid.
  • Promotes repair of early damage to the enamel.

According to Philippa Sawyer from the Australian Dental Association, fluoride should be the first consideration when choosing a toothpaste, no matter how old you are. “There’s a miscomprehension out there that fluoride is just for kids, but everyone needs it. A small, constant intake is perfect.” She says Australian guidelines for adults recommend twice daily brushing using a pea-sized amount on the brush. Applying topical fluoride when brushing removes plaque and gives a fluoride treatment.

Can you get too much?

Too much fluoride can cause dental fluorosis, a condition where the teeth’s enamel surface becomes mottled in appearance. Most fluorosis is mild and doesn’t damage teeth, and occurs only during tooth development in early childhood, so older children and adults aren’t at risk. Although it’s more common in fluoridated areas, it can occur in other areas as well. Most fluorosis seems to be associated with children swallowing too much fluoride.

Fluorosis levels have halved since the early 1990s, with the wider use of low-fluoride children’s toothpastes and recommendations that kids in areas where water is fluoridated use only very small amounts of toothpaste – no more than a pea-sized smear of low-fluoride toothpaste until the age of six. It’s also important to supervise young children when they are using toothpaste so they don’t eat large quantities.

Read more about fluoride in toothpaste and the water supply.