What is toothpaste made of?
Such a simple question, yet the answer is a long one. Many off-the-shelf toothpastes contain a plethora of ingredients.
But it’s a good idea to understand exactly what you are putting into your mouth on a daily basis and why. There are good cases for and against some of the most common ingredients.
In this guide we look at those common ingredients: what’s natural, what’s needed and what’s controversial.
Before we dive into the individual ingredients, we’ll cover a few key topics when it comes to assessing your toothpaste.
Table of contents
An introduction to choosing toothpaste
- Toothpaste: what’s it actually for?
- It’s not a superman
- Recent scrutiny
- Do your own research
- Take a critical approach to manufacturer statements
A closer look at individual ingredients
- Non-abrasive toothpaste brands
- Fluoride-free toothpaste brands
- Polyethylene (plastic microbeads)
- Microbead-free toothpaste brands
- Triclosan-free toothpaste brands
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
- SLS-free toothpaste brands
- Hydrated Sicilia
- Hydrated Sicilia-free toothpaste brands
- Paraben-free toothpaste brands
- Sorbitol-free toothpaste brands
- Xylitol-free toothpaste brands
More toothpaste info
Toothpaste: what’s it actually for?
The primary role of toothpaste is to act as an abrasive by removing plaque around teeth and the gum line. This process is absolutely essential in avoiding gum disease and tooth decay problems — painful conditions that can lead to tooth loss.
Pastes and gels contain a number of active ingredients, such as fluoride, which function to suppress conditions such as gingivitis and decalcification.
Toothpastes are usually made up of abrasives, fluorides, foaming agents (SLS), detergents, flavourants and anti-bacterial agents. The problem is that some of the chemicals used are potentially harmful, as we discuss in more detail below.
It’s not a superman
A number of dental professionals have stepped forward to explain that toothpaste, as a mere cosmetic, plays a marginal role in our oral health care; a greater emphasis should be placed on thorough brushing and flossing.
The message is clear: we can’t look to toothpaste to assume the superman role of dental health. Actually, we should simplify paste as much as possible.
Despite the numerous claims manufacturers make (tartar protection! whitening! fluoride-free! extra-fluoride!), toothpaste is merely an adjunct to a meticulous oral care regime.
As important as toothpaste itself is knowing how to brush your teeth properly, along with other activities like flossing.
The exact chemical content of popular toothpastes has been made the subject of scrutiny in recent years.
It has emerged that some components are potentially harmful, while some additives – namely plastic microbeads – are needlessly present as decoration.
While all chemicals are regulated, tested and monitored, what is disconcerting is that companies are not obliged by law to state which ingredients are used within products. So while some may be listed, there is no law to ensure that all of them are.
While the big companies are not using anything in their pastes that are known to be toxic, for some, it’s the lack of transparency that causes concern.
This has led to a rise in popularity for ‘natural’ toothpastes, and DIY toothpastes made at home.
Do your own research
What we wish to emphasise within this article is the need for you to do your own research.
With some toothpaste ingredients, their level of safety or harmfulness is disputed among scientists and medical professionals. Often there is no definitive right or wrong answer.
It is not our position to comment on the safety of ingredients – we are not medical professionals, nor scientists.
Our role is to present the different arguments, and to draw your attention to existing discussions and evidence, so that you can make your own decision on which ingredients you are happy to use.
We’ve also included lists of toothpastes that do not contain certain ingredients in case you would rather not use them.
Take a critical approach to manufacturer statements
It’s important to take a critical approach to marketing messages and manufacturer statements in any industry, but especially so when it comes to cosmetics that can contain a mixture of chemicals.
Just because a manufacturer regards something as safe, it doesn’t mean you should blindly follow it.
Taking the ingredient polyethelene (which is used to manufacture plastic microbeads) as an example, Proctor & Gamble, parent company of Oral-B and Crest, states on its ingredients page that ‘microbeads are safe for people and polyethylene is approved for use in some foods by the FDA.’
Given the evidence of microbeads being embedded in people’s gums (which we talk about in more detail below), to simply state that they are ‘safe’ is somewhat misleading. P&G uses the statement to justify its past usage of microbeads (they have now been phased out), but the fact is they were decorative in the first place, and harmful to the environment. To simply declare them as ‘safe’ to cover past action shows a disregard for what’s taken place.
Furthermore, to dismiss the environmental argument against having microbeads in cosmetic products, the page states: ‘The science to date shows the breakdown of larger plastics to be the primary source of plastics in the ocean, not microbeads.’
One of the stats that came up in the recent parliamentary debate on the microbead ban was that: ‘it is estimated that 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment each year in the UK from facial exfoliators alone’.
That’s a lot of plastic!
So yes, perhaps the larger plastics are the ‘primary source’, but why does that mean we should not worry about smaller contributors like microbeads? They are still contributing, they are still harmful to the environment, and their inclusion in cosmetic products is / was far from necessary.
For us, pages like this with their over-simplified, self-serving statements emphasise how important it is to do your own research and make your own decisions.
A closer look at the individual ingredients
In this section we’ll look at the most common components found in toothpaste, and some of the arguments that have been presented for and against them.
Although we mostly look at products within a UK context here at Electric Teeth, throughout this article we refer to the U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) because it tends to have more information listed on its site about individual chemicals than it’s UK equivalent, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The two do work closely with each other and share information, as is outlined here.
People have been mixing substances together throughout history, as far back as Egyptian times, to clean teeth. Abrasives are used to cause a small amount of enamel erosion. Small particles act like an exfoliant to target biofilm on teeth. Abrasive particles nowadays are made from aluminium hydroxide, hydrated silica, hydrated alumina, calcium carbonate, calcium hydrogen phosphates and hydroxyapatite.
A radioactive abrasive index is used to measure how abrasive toothpaste is. Toothpaste has been linked to a greater incidence of abrasion, though it seems that hard bristles and fervent brushing is the primary cause. Symptoms include sensitive teeth and receding gums. Too much abrasion can cause problems, but without an abrasive, you won’t achieve a comprehensive clean or polish. Tartar control and whitening toothpastes are known to be slightly more abrasive.
Non-abrasive toothpaste brands
Some of the most abrasive toothpastes on the market include Colgate Tartar Control and Crest Multicare Whitening.
Toothbrush abrasion can be avoided by using low-abrasive toothpastes. Freysmiles Orthodontics have published a list of best-selling toothpaste alongside their abrasive index. Anything below 70-80 RDA on the index is considered low-abrasive.
Fluoride is an additive used to remineralise teeth, which helps strengthen dental enamel. Without vital mineralization, decalcification can occur, which looks like white spots on the tooth. Fluoride is naturally present in some water sources, plants and animals. The most common fluoride additives in toothpaste include sodium fluoride and stannous fluoride.
There are some concerns that too much exposure to fluoride can harm the body. NYR Natural News claims there is ‘enough fluoride in half of the average 100-mg tube of toothpaste to kill a small child’. How much fluoride children are ingesting is obviously a worry to adults training their children not to swallow the paste. This is especially difficult considering the flavourings used to encourage children to enjoy brushing. We are exposed to fluoride on a daily basis through our water supply. While it is generally agreed that fluoride can help the teeth, some people worry that they are ingesting potentially harmful amounts.
In the US the FDA does not allow for a higher concentration to be allowed in toothpastes as it can damage developing teeth, but some people argue the current concentration is too weak to have any real effect. Another problem is that the fluoride can’t work until all biofilm has been removed, so some dentists suggest applying a mineralising paste after brushing, such as GC MI Paste.
If the normal precautions are taken (i.e. don’t swallow the paste after use), then fluoride is really only unsafe for very young children (0-3 years) and people with a fluoride allergy.
According to the American Dental Association, children should be introduced to fluoride in very small, pea-sized doses between the age of 3 and 6. Adult toothpaste should not be used on children for a number of reasons beside the fluoride content.
If you do decide to opt for a toothpaste without fluoride – either as a way to reduce your fluoride intake or because you have an allergy, below is a list of fluoride-free toothpaste brands for you to consider.
Fluoride-free toothpaste brands
- Aloe Dent Aloe Vera Sensitive
- Tea Tree Oil & Neem Toothpaste
- Sarakan Toothpaste.
Polyethylene (plastic microbeads)
However following a parliamentary debate in March it is now expected that legislation to ban microbeads will be introduced in October 2017, that production will be banned from the beginning of 2018, and that the sale of microbead cosmetic products will be banned from July 2018. For more information see our write up on the debate and the UK microbead ban.
It was in 2014 that dental hygienist Trish Walraven first spotted that plastic from toothpaste was being embedded in patients’ gums, prompting her to launch her own investigations. She found that these blue specs don’t dissolve in alcohol or acetone, and that Crest avoids stating overtly that they are using polyethylene on their ingredient list on the tube. Ms Walraven also noted that the beads were getting trapped in the sulcus surrounding teeth. You can read more about her findings here.
It turned out that some toothpaste manufacturers (the most notable including Crest) were using microbeads for the sole purpose of adding colour to their toothpaste. See the photos below from
These decorative beads are in fact a non-biodegradable type of plastic — the kind used to makes bins, containers and carrier bags. Despite many dental professionals warning of potential dangers such as periodontal disease, Crest persisted with its message that the use of a non-biodegradable material in our mouths is ‘completely safe.’
This was Crest’s statement (view it here on Washington Post) back in September 2014 when the use of microbeads in its toothpaste was first revealed:
“While the ingredient in question is completely safe, approved for use in foods by the FDA, and part of an enjoyable brushing experience for millions of consumers with no issues, we understand there is a growing preference for us to remove this ingredient. So we will.
We currently have products without microbeads for those who would prefer them. We have begun removing microbeads from the rest of our toothpastes, and the majority of our product volume will be microbead-free within six months. We will complete our removal process by March of 2016.”
Ms Walraven’s blog garnered enough attention to make national news. While the American Dental Association did not retracted its seal of approval for Crest’s plastic pastes, the public outrage did provoke the company into agreeing to phase out the use of microplastics by the year 2016.
This may seem like old news by now – after all, microbeads are close to being banned in the UK and the US – but there are some important takeaways that apply despite the changes:
- Do your own research – you can’t necessarily trust what’s in store-bought toothpastes, which one would naturally assume are ‘safe’ for consumption. It took a dental hygienist to notice and test this arguably harmful ingredient!
- Despite the findings, Crest continued to insist that its microbead toothpaste was safe to use and the American Dental Association did not retract its seal of approval for Crest’s plastic pastes. This gives you a good indication of to what extent you can trust such a seal. Again, always double check ingredients for yourself and decide what you are personally happy to put in your mouth.
Aside from health and safety concerns, these beads are proving harmful for the environment and for the fish population. This GreanPeace article explains in detail how microbeads are harmful for the environment, but in a nutshell they are so small that they cannot be filtered out of our sewage system and end up stuck in the water supply. So even though the likes of Crest can argue that microbeads are ‘safe’ in their toothpaste, the secondary effect is that they pollute the environment.
It’s worth noting that Polyethylene is on the FDA’s prohibited list as it may lead to 1,4-dioxane contamination. 1,4-dioxane is a cancer-causing chemical. It’s also present in SLS foaming agents. Prior to the new laws that are about to be passed, parent company of Oral-B and Crest (Proctor & Gamble) were not required by law to remove it from their toothpastes because the levels are so low that current organisations have deemed it safe for humans.
We urge you to abstain from using any toothpaste or beauty product that uses polyethylene / microbeads, both for the good of your own health and for the environment. They will soon be unavailable anyway.
Toothpaste without microbeads / polyethylene
The majority of toothpastes on sale in the UK come without microbeads / polyethylene.
We’ve created a separate article that lists the few toothpastes that may still contain them.
It also lists plenty of toothpastes without microbeads.
Triclosan is another additive that’s safety has been questioned by some. It’s used to get rid of bad bacteria and prevent bacterial combination. Its antimicrobial property is said to reduce infections around the gums. Undoubtedly Triclosan is successful at exactly this, but the problems arise from other, less welcome, side-effects.
Dr Mark Burhenne of askthedentist.com suggests that Triclosan acts like a kind of nuke, obliterating both bad and good bacteria in the delicate eco-system of your mouth.
Conversely, other prominent dental professionals, such as Ms Trish Walraven (responsible for exposing Crest’s use of polythene, as mentioned above), argues that science has found that Triclosan does more good than harm.
The FDA has not refuted nor validated the use of triclosan, but on its site it states that ‘in 1997, FDA reviewed extensive effectiveness data on triclosan in Colgate Total toothpaste. The evidence showed that triclosan in that product was effective in preventing gingivitis.’
In 2014 the American Dental Association (ADA) released a statement announcing that the only paste to which they have afforded their seal of approval regarding triclosan is Colgate Total. The ADA rarely affords its seal of approval to any toothpaste manufacturers outside of Crest and Colgate, though, and even after the exposure of Crest’s use of plastic in toothpaste for decorative purposes it still maintained the seal.
Triclosan-free toothpaste brands
For children under the age of 6, Oral-B Stages offers Disney-themed cavity protection without triclosan. The Green People Company offer a paste for kids without SLS, fluoride, artificial flavours or triclosan, and a mint-free organic option for adults. Another popular choice is Aloe Dent Aloe Vera Sensitive fluoride- and triclosan-free paste.
For an all natural paste, try Redmond Earthpaste.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
SLS is a detergent that is used as a foaming agent. It’s used in products like toothpaste and shampoo so that the substance lathers, enabling us to spread it easier. In toothpaste, it’s a type of soap that helps to dissolve dental plaque. SLS’s toxicology has been called into question, but some recent studies have proven it’s not a carcinogen.
What can potentially cause cancer is 1,4-Dioxane contamination. 1,4-Dioxane is a by-product of SLES, sodium lauryl ether sulfate. Trace levels must therefore be measured. In the US the FDA encourages manufacturers to remove 1,4-Dioxane, but federal law does not enforce this.
It is believed that SLS can cause canker sores / mouth ulcers for some people. The BBC reports on one study that wasn’t all that conclusive, but still recommends trying an SLS-free toothpaste if you do suffer from mouth ulcers:
“In one trial, 90 people who regularly suffered from mouth ulcers were asked to try 8 weeks on a toothpaste with SLS, and 8 weeks on an SLS-free toothpaste. The trial was ‘double-blind’, so neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was using which toothpaste. The researchers found that the SLS free toothpaste did not reduce the number of ulcers or the frequency with which people got them.
“However, they did find that while using the SLS-free toothpaste, the volunteers self-reported feeling less pain and that the ulcers healed slightly quicker.”
Colgate deems SLS detergents ‘important’ in allowing foaming to occur. SLS is the reason foaming occurs. And foam is arguably an unnecessary component in brushing. It doesn’t help clean the mouth, all it does is provide a lather for you to spread the product around more easily.
SLS-Free Toothpaste Brands
There are many toothpastes out there that without Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). Some of these include:
- Redmond Earthpaste: Only natural ingredients such as essential oils and salt
- Sarakan Toothpaste: No parabens, SLS, fluoride, added colours or preservatives
- Tom of Maine’s Clean & Gentle Toothpaste: This one has no SLS, but some of their other toothpastes do include it.
- Oranurse: No SLS, flavour-free, contains fluoride
- Aloe Dent: Fluoride- and SLS-free, contains soothing aloe vera and tea tree oil
- Australian Tea Tree Toothpaste: fluoride-free and SLS- free, contains aloe vera
This one is Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA. It occurs in nature, but can also be manufactured. It is not silicone, and not it’s toxic namesake, crystalline silica. It’s a derivative of silicone dioxide.
What’s worrying about hydrated sicilia is that it can be contaminated by crystalline sicilia, so some manufacturers subject their hydrated silica to an x-ray process first before using it in pastes. For some people, using a material that must be x-rayed first is a little disconcerting.
Hydrated Sicilia-free toothpaste brands
Try Redmond Earthpaste — it has very few ingredients, and all are natural.
Parabens are an ester used as a preservative, therefore helping the toothpaste to last for a long time and in good condition. It stops the toothpaste from becoming contaminated by killing mould and fungus. Paraben is used in so many products that it is now difficult to establish how it is affecting us. One study has linked overexposure with breast cancer, and with so many products marketed at women infused with parabens, it’s no wonder both men and women alike are seeking out ‘paraben-free’ products.
Parabens have even been shown to reduce the sperm count in mice, leading the study to conclude: “These data demonstrated that butyl paraben can exert an adverse effect on the male reproductive system at doses that are well below those of the accepted daily intake (ADI) in Japan.”
Paraben-free toothpaste brands
If a paste doesn’t explicitly state that it’s free from parabens, look for products that claim they are free from artificial preservatives. Some that are paraben-free include:
Colgate also phased out its use of Parabens as of July 2016
Further reading about Parabens
- FDA page on Parabens
Sorbitol is a naturally-occurring chemical that is used as an artificial sweetener. It’s a sugar alcohol that is used as a substitute for sugar, and is often found in sugar-free cakes and candy. Sorbitol can cause flatulence, bloating and can aggravate irritable bowel syndrome.
Sorbitol is an ingredient that is listed as Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
Sorbitol-free toothpaste brands
If you’re looking to avoid Sorbitol and other chemicals in your toothpaste, look for a paste that uses minimal, natural ingredients.Check for pastes that are ‘unsweetened’, ‘unflavoured,’ or without preservatives, such as:
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is used as a sweetener. It occurs naturally in some plants, fruits and vegetables. It helps fight bacteria in saliva that causes tooth decay. It is reported that using up to 20 grams of xylitol per day can significantly reduce the rate of cavity formation in both adults and children. Some studies have proven that xylitol is effective in preventing caries on the root surface of the tooth. Xylitol is more expensive that sorbitol, so its presence in toothpaste is owed to its antibacterial properties. Xylitol is great for people suffering from dry-mouth.
Xylitol can be sourced naturally. Check your toothpaste for non genetically-modified xylitol, such as in Redmond Earthpaste (sourced from corn and birch for use as a ‘natural sweetener’).
Like with many toothpaste ingredients, this substance is carefully regulated. It is not advised that we consume more than 50 grams per day. It’s not suitable for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as not enough is known about its side-effects. Potential side effects following over-exposure include bloating and diarrhea. Xylitol is toxic for dogs so be careful which paste you are brushing your pet’s teeth with.
Xylitol-free toothpaste brands
Xylitol is everywhere because it is thought to prevent tooth decay. There are currently very few pastes on the market that don’t contain xylitol.
Many tests have shown it works wonders for teeth, but it could be toxic in large doses if swallowed. If you would like to make a paste with minimal ingredients, see our recommended DIY toothpastes below.
We have included activated charcoal in this list because of its recent rise in popularity, which we have written about in detail in our charcoal toothpaste guide.
It’s not an ingredient per se, but rather something that toothpaste can be made of.
It comes in the form of either powder or paste and is used for at-home teeth whitening.
At this moment in time there is little scientific proof to show whether or not using activated charcoal for whitening is safe, nor unsafe.
‘What we do know, as of this writing, is there is only one toothpaste containing activated charcoal that appears to be safe. Black is White toothpaste (Curaprox Inc.) uses activated carbon for whitening and stain removal.’
It also talks about how Black is White is different to other charcoal products:
‘Black is White is also differentiated from other activated charcoal products by what it does not contain. It does not contain sodium laurel sulfate (SLS), triclosan, bleaching or chemical agents, or plastic particles.’
We look in more detail at charcoal toothpaste and what has been said about it in this article. If you do decide to use charcoal toothpaste, we recommend proceeding with caution due to the current lack of evidence of its long term effects.
What’s the safest toothpaste?
Taking into account what we’ve said above about toothpaste ingredients, you may be wondering what the safest toothpaste is, especially if you need one to give to your children.
The problem is that some toothpastes contain a number of chemicals that are allowed on the market as science hasn’t yet proven them unsafe.
And while some ingredients are included because they help promote dental health, it’s unknown what long term side-effects could be.
As consumers we look to organizations such as the American Dental Association to approve or reject products for us, but with chemicals like triclosan, tests are still being conducted.
The ADA is supposed to regulate the dental market, yet it did not take steps to condemn, nor remove its seal of approval for Crest when it emerged that the company’s toothpaste was using microbeads, which were found embedded in someone’s gums.
Had the problem of microbeads in toothpaste not been discovered by a dental professional, one has to wonder how long the products would have been regarded as ‘safe’ or before scientific testing proved they were problematic.
All in all our recommended toothpaste is Redmond Earthpaste (view on Amazon). However, as we stated at the beginning of this article, you should also do your own research and decide which chemicals you feel are necessary, and which you feel should be avoided.
Another site, Gimme The Good Stuff, has a good write up on which toothpastes are safe and recommends Earthpaste. It also includes a list of toothpastes to avoid, and those that it regards as ‘sneaky’.
To provide further examples, if you have a problem with tartar, you might look to a tartar-control toothpaste. The problem is that these have a high abrasive content, which could cause damage to enamel over a long period of time.
Similarly, some brands have chosen to keep triclosan in their formula as it obliterates bacteria, allowing them to claim that their toothpaste is particularly effective — but this also means destroying all the good bacteria needed in your mouth. There is also speculation that it helps build a bacteria which is resistant to antibiotics.
So while these ingredients are not regarded as dangerous nor toxic, your personal choice may be to avoid them based on your own situation.
Our personal choice is to stay away from toothpastes containing SLS, triclosan, polyethylene (microbeads) or pastes that have a high abrasive content.
When it comes down to it, toothpaste isn’t all that important, we just need it to make brushing easier and more effective. We recommend making your own paste or choosing from organic, natural products that stick to what we know is safe.
Lists of types of toothpaste
If there’s a particular type of toothpaste that your looking for, free of specific ingredients, check our list below. If you’ve got any of your own to recommend, be sure to let us know in the comments.
Note that non-inclusion on a list does not imply inclusion by omission, we’ve simply listed a few products for each category that are known to exclude the ingredient in question.
Our all-round favourite: Redmond Earthpaste
- No glycerin, fluoride, titanium dioxide (whitening agent)
- No chemical thickeners (so hold the tube vertically to apply to toothbrush)
- Ingredients all sourced from the earth
- Natural in colour
- Added xylitol (non-GMO certified) and essential oils
- Protects teeth and gums
- Available in different (natural) flavours
- Only 7 ingredients — all natural!
- You can opt to avoid using the (safe levels) of essential oils with the lemon twist flavour
What often surprises people is how little you really need from your paste. Some dentists even advocate dry brushing! Here are some materials you may have around your home that can make an excellent paste:
- Coconut oil reduces cavity causing bacteria
- Essential oil has antifungal properties
- Baking soda acts as an abrasive, removing stains from enamel
- Sea salt provides antibacterial protection
We recommend checking out the following two sites for homemade recipes:
- Wellness Mama Recipe: coconut oil, baking soda, stevia powder, essential oil
- DIY Natural Recipe: baking soda, sea salt, peppermint extract