Toothpaste marketing

The toothpaste market is not as clean as you might think.
 
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01 .Cleaning up

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We've looked at 17 toothpastes and spoken to dental experts to find out if there's any truth to the marketing claims.

Walking down the dental care aisle in the supermarket, consumers must wade through “advanced formulas”, “multiaction” pastes, “extreme-clean” products and even “micro-cleaning crystals” when deciding what to buy. Toothpaste, the ubiquitous daily essential, is an example of market segmentation at its most successful.

Although just two companies, Colgate Palmolive and GlaxoSmithKline, control 92% of the Australian toothpaste market, there are certainly more than two products on the shelves. As if regular toothpaste wasn’t cleaning teeth sufficiently, we now have whitening, tartar control, sensitive and enamel-lock toothpastes as well as products tailored to children.

“As a dentist, I’m quite amazed when I go through the supermarket aisle and look at just how many toothpastes are on the shelf,” says Dr Peter Alldritt, chairman of the Oral Health Committee at the Australian Dental Association (ADA). “How do people choose?”

To help you understand what you should look for in a toothpaste, CHOICE spoke with dental experts and looked at 17 toothpastes to find out if the marketing hype matches up with what the experts say we really need.

For more information about Dental care, see Beauty and personal care.

What is toothpaste made from?

From pulverised bones and crushed oyster shells to the modern-day pearly white paste, the role of toothpaste has always been to remove plaque and prevent cavities. Professor Mike Morgan, Head of Population Oral Health and Periodontics at Melbourne University, says most toothpastes contain essentially the same ingredients and believes very few in the marketplace would actually fail to perform these two tasks.

Toothpaste has two key ingredients, fluoride and a mild abrasive, bound together with thickeners, sweeteners, stabilisers and flavours. While the abrasives can vary – such as calcium carbonate and hydrated silica – they fulfil the same purpose: to polish your teeth and dislodge particles of food caught between them. 

With fluoride and abrasives found in most toothpaste, brands are constantly searching for a point of difference to market their products. Sensitive toothpaste is one valid point of difference, but experts we spoke to say many others may not deliver the results their marketing promises.

Control, protect and mislead

Tartar is the build-up of hardened plaque that can lead to gum disease. Although regular brushing can minimise its build-up, tartar can only be properly removed by a dentist. Of the toothpastes we looked at, almost all contain a tartar suspension agent – the most common being pyrophosphates and xanthan gum – designed to suspend tartar particles in saliva and prevent them from clinging to teeth. Although only three mention tartar control on their packaging, Morgan says most toothpastes will reduce the amount of tartar build-up if used in conjunction with a good toothbrush and regular brushing.

Enamel is the outer coating of the tooth. Although generally much harder than the inner dentine, it can be worn down by excessive scrubbing or acidic foods. Colgate Sensitive Enamel Protect and Macleans Advanced both claim to protect teeth enamel, but according to Alldritt these claims may be a classic example of market trickery. “The best protection for enamel is fluoride,” he says. “Enamel is a fluoride, and when exposed to the fluoride in toothpaste, it is like putting a coat of armour on it.” The ADA recommends a certain level of fluoride in regular adult toothpaste and the Macleans enamel-lock toothpaste did not contain any more fluoride than Colgate’s regular toothpaste.

Toothpastes reviewed

  • Coles Smart Buy Toothpaste 105g
  • Coles Whitening Toothpaste with Fluoride 140g
  • Colgate Advanced Whitening Micro Cleansing Crystals 110g 
  • Colgate Advanced Whitening Tartar Control with Micro Cleansing Crystals 120g 
  • Colgate Maximum Cavity Protection 175g
  • Colgate My First* 45g 
  • Colgate Sensitive Enamel Protect plus Whitening 110g
  • Colgate Sensitive Multi Protection 110g 
  • Colgate Spiderman* 110g
  • Macleans Advanced Enamel Lock Formula 170g 
  • Macleans Big Teeth* 63g
  • Macleans Extreme Clean Whitening 170g
  • Macleans Milk Teeth* 63g 
  • Sensodyne Pronamel Gentle Whitening 110g 
  • Sensodyne Repair and Protect 100g 
  • White Glo Extra Strength Whitening Toothpaste (Coffee & Tea Drinkers Formula) 150g 
  • Woolworths Home Brand Toothpaste 150g 
* Children's products

 
 

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The fine print often qualifies this by promising whiter teeth as a result of stain removal, not an overall whitening treatment.

Teeth-whitening products

Teeth-whitening products are the largest segment in the oral care market. When we examined ingredients in a selection of whitening toothpastes, however, we found none contain a bleaching agent – required to physically alter the colour of teeth. The fine print often qualifies this by promising whiter teeth as a result of stain removal, not an overall whitening treatment.

Of the 13 adult toothpastes we looked at, there was little difference in the active ingredients. All contain fluoride and an abrasive, the same humectant (which helps the paste retain moisture) and sweetener, as well as water, flavour and a lathering agent.

Colgate Advanced Whitening and Woolworths Homebrand Freshmint Toothpaste, for example, contain many of the same ingredients. Both use hydrated silica as the abrasive and the same suspension agent to prevent tartar from clinging to teeth. Although they don’t indicate the exact proportion of ingredients in the products, both include fluoride, a stabilising agent and titanium dioxide to give the paste an opaque, white appearance. The Woolworths product also includes a naturally occurring preservative – and is less than half the price of the Colgate “whitening” toothpaste.

White Glo Extra Strength Coffee & Tea Drinkers Formula costs more than three times as much as the Coles Smart Buy regular toothpaste, with very little difference in ingredients. Our analysis of ingredients found both use a calcium carbonate abrasive and fluoride, the same sweetener, humectant and a similar stabilising agent. The main difference seems to be that White Glo also has carnauba wax – derived from a Brazilian palm tree – and rosehip oil. Alldritt, who says teeth can only be properly whitened by applying a bleaching agent over a number of hours, strongly doubts the wax would make any real difference when it comes to preventing stains.

The experts we spoke to say the amount of abrasive in any given tube of toothpaste is capped to protect tooth enamel from erosion, so the cheaper, mainstream products are likely to have the same effect. However, Morgan argues that while cost is a factor in deciding which toothpaste to buy, you should stick with reputable brands as recently, in the the UK, some cheaper toothpastes have been found to not contain bio-available (absorbable) fluoride.

Children's toothpaste

From milk teeth to big teeth, sparkling gel to Spiderman, children’s toothpastes haven’t been left behind in the rush to segment the oral health care market. There are sparkles, coloured stripes and even Wiggles-endorsed products. They’re sugar-free and include fluoride and abrasives just like toothpastes for adults.

How are they different?

As children are prone to swallow toothpaste, the ADA recommends parents avoid giving toothpaste to babies and toddlers up to 18 months and use only low-fluoride formulas for children 18 months to six years to prevent fluorosis (caused by ingesting too much fluoride).

Colgate markets its low-fluoride toothpaste as My First Colgate for children up to six, while Macleans offers Milk Teeth for children up to three years of age and Big Teeth for children over seven. Colgate also offers a big kids’ paste – for those six and up – with some clever Spiderman marketing. The ADA’s policy on fluoride does not require a specialised toothpaste for children aged over six, so Alldritt argues those “big kid” products are a case of an intermediate market being created. “It is not a problem for the teeth, but it is confusing for parents with so many choices,” he says.

Products for sensitive teeth

When enamel thins or gums recede, porous dentine – the home of many nerve endings – can become exposed. Sensitive toothpaste is designed to block the dentine tubules and minimise sensitivity when brushing.

Of all the spin-off segments in the oral care market, toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth is the most legitimate, according to both Alldritt and Morgan. While Alldritt is happy to recommend it to patients who need it, he warns it is not a cure for everything and shouldn’t be used to cover up more serious problems, such as decay.

Of the toothpastes we examined, the bold claims made by these four stood out. 

Colgate Advanced Whitening

colgate_advanced_whitening

The spin: "Micro-cleansing crystals for clinically proven whiter teeth".
The truth: Comparing the ingredients with that of regular Colgate, we believe the micro-cleansing crystals must be hydrated silica, which is the abrasive used in many other toothpastes, including Woolworths Homebrand.

Macleans Extreme Clean Whitening

macleans_extreme_clean_deep_action_whitening

The spin: "Extreme clean with micro-active foam for deep-action whitening".
The truth: No toothpaste without hydrogen peroxide is capable of physically whitening teeth, with or without "deep action".


White Glo Coffee and Tea formula

white_glo_coffee_and_tea_with_carnauba_wax

The spin: "Micro-wax to prevent staining on teeth enamel."
The truth: The micro-wax is carnauba wax, derived from a Brazilian palm tree. Alldritt doubts a coating of wax would remain on the teeth throughout the day to repel stains from food and drinks.

Coles whitening

coles_whitening

The spin: "Multi-action".
The truth: Our experts say most toothpastes offer the same protection as Coles’ “multi-action” claims – they all clean teeth, help prevent cavities, remove plaque and reduce tartar.

CHOICE oral health checklist

According to Alldritt, the most important considerations for maintaining good oral health should be:

  • Fluoride – the most important ingredient in toothpaste.
  • Regular care – brushing in the morning and at night with a good toothbrush and soft brushing motion.
  • Flossing – cleaning in between your teeth to prevent small pieces of food from becoming trapped.
  • Diet – be mindful that the breakdown of sugars and carbohydrates by the bacteria in your mouth produces acid, which can attack enamel and begin the decaying process.
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