We're all interested in how our toothpaste tastes, how it freshens breath or how it brightens teeth. But those are secondary to its most important function, which is how well our toothpaste helps us remove dental plaque, that thin bacterial film on teeth most responsible for both tooth decay and gum disease.
Daily brushing and flossing clear away dental plaque, resulting in a much lower risk for dental disease. But while the mechanical action of brushing loosens plaque, toothpaste helps complete its removal. It can do this because of two basic ingredients found in nearly every brand of toothpaste.
The first is an abrasive (or polishing agent), a gritty substance that boosts the effectiveness of the brushing action (which, by the way, alleviates the need for harmful aggressive brushing). These substances, usually hydrated silica, hydrated alumina or calcium carbonate, are abrasive enough to loosen plaque, but not enough to damage tooth enamel.
The other ingredient, a detergent, works much the same way as the product you use to wash greasy dishes—it breaks down the parts of plaque that water can't dissolve. The most common, sodium lauryl sulfate, a safe detergent found in other hygiene products, loosens and dissolves plaque so that it can be easily rinsed away.
You'll also find other ingredients to some degree in toothpaste: flavorings, of course, that go a long way toward making the brushing experience more pleasant; humectants to help toothpaste retain moisture; and binders to hold bind all the ingredients together. And many toothpastes also contain fluoride, a naturally-occurring chemical that strengthens tooth enamel.
You may also find additional ingredients in toothpastes that specialize in certain functions like reducing tartar buildup (hardened plaque), easing tooth or gum sensitivity or controlling bacterial growth. Many toothpastes also include whiteners to promote a brighter smile. Your dentist can advise you on what to look for in a toothpaste to meet a specific need.
But your first priority should always be how well your toothpaste helps you keep your teeth and gums healthy. Knowing what's in it can help you choose your toothpaste more wisely.
If you would like more information on oral hygiene products and aids, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Toothpaste: What's in It?”