I’m always going on about the environmental benefit of switching from toothpaste in a tube to toothpaste tablets or toothpaste jars, but I haven’t yet really squeezed the tube (pun!) on how the actual toothpaste measures up.
As a toothpaste formulator and a dental professional, it’s second nature for me to pick up a tube of toothpaste and read the ingredients list. And yes, I’ve seen ingredients that make my teeth cringe, but it might be a surprise to hear that it’s usually been the more natural products that cause this reaction. Honey may be natural but it is sugar, and sugar has no place in toothpaste!
Conversely, mainstream toothpastes have been scientifically formulated and contain fluoride. Just like SOLID toothpaste and toothpaste tablets. Research based formulations are a good thing – teeth are important and we want to make sure we’re not inadvertently damaging them.
In saying this, cosmetic formulators for the toothpaste giants are not always tasked with creating new amazing toothpastes. Their job is much more likely to involve reducing the cost of an existing product.
The easiest way to reduce the cost is to add more water. This goes for all personal care products – hair conditioners can contain up to 90% water. Shipping tonnes of water in plastic containers around the world is… perhaps not the best way to do things.
Ethique, the leader in solid beauty products, has done really well in making this common knowledge. Ecostore have also have been discussing this for the last 30 years. Mainstream toothpaste can contain about 40% water and the reason is simple: water is cheap! Making a toothpaste with 42% water rather than 38% water can mean millions of dollars more profit when you sell at such a huge scale.
I was very conscious of this when I formulated our SOLID toothpaste jars (which have less than 5% water). They are designed to last four months as you only need a pea sized amount of our toothpaste to make for an enjoyable brushing experience. As for toothpaste tablets – well, they are “toothpaste without the water”.
After water, the two main ingredients that make up most toothpastes are the abrasive (scrubby) component and the humectant (moisturising) component.
Toothpaste humectants often have a double role in that they also provide a sweet flavour. Mainstream toothpastes generally use sorbitol. At SOLID we use xylitol. They may sound kind of similar, but xylitol is the only one that prevents tooth decay. Sorbitol does not benefit tooth health. The reason sorbitol is used instead of xylitol is (you guessed it!) because it’s cheaper.
Abrasives are teeny tiny hard particles that physically scrub teeth clean. On the label you might see hydrated silica, or calcium carbonate (what I use). A more abrasive toothpaste isn’t necessarily a good thing. The plaque that builds up on our teeth is soft. We’re better off just making sure we brush thoroughly, rather than use a hard abrasive. Most toothpastes advertised as whitening are just more abrasive. If you are looking for a true whitening action, look out for the ingredients hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. Or ask your dental hygienist, they live and breathe this stuff.
Going down the ingredients list, you will probably see sodium lauryl sulfate – this is a surfactant. Surfactants help disperse toothpaste ingredients around your mouth, plus the foaming action prevents toothpaste from dripping out of your mouth! Sodium lauryl sulfate is most commonly used because it’s cheap and you get a lot of bang for your buck (foam in your toothpaste). SLS is palm derived and there’s some evidence that it can contribute to mouth ulcers in those susceptible, so I use the gentler sodium lauroyl sarcosinate.
It’s been said that sustainable products need to work just as well, or better, than their mainstream alternatives if people are going to switch to them. For oral care, it may sound obvious, but its really important that they taste good and feel nice to use. This is something I always keep front of mind, and something I’m always looking to achieve with our oral care products.
Please comment below or send me a message if there are any toothpaste ingredients you’ve wondered about that I haven’t covered – if there’s enough interest I’ll do a part two!