Modern toothpaste is composed of many different ingredients, each of them specifically designed to serve a different purpose.
It might seem insignificant, but without the modern toothpastes we have today, we wouldn’t have anywhere the same level of oral health, and when combined with our sugar heavy diets, we would be lucky to have any teeth at all.
But what exactly are the ingredients of toothpaste, and what purpose do they serve?
While a seemingly modern invention, toothpaste has a long history dating back thousands of years.
While obviously different from what we know and use today, the Ancient Egyptians were using toothpaste in powder form.
This was composed of the ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells, and pumice.
This recipe was then improved by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who added abrasive elements like crushed bones and oyster shells as a means of cleaning their teeth of bacteria and plaque.
Tooth powder made its way to Britain in the 19th century, initially made with chalk, brick dust, and salt, before baking soda-based powders were introduced some time after – when it became apparent that the original recipes were causing more harm than good.
Toothpaste: Base Ingredients
With modern toothpaste, there are many different substances that are designed to perform different tasks during the teeth cleaning process.
Abrasives are rough, soluble particles designed to remove plaque from the teeth, and in modern toothpaste, these can consist of aluminum hydroxide (AI(OH)3), calcium carbonate (CaCO3), magnesium carbonate (MgCO3), sodium bicarbonate, numerous kinds of calcium hydrogen phosphates, silicas (silicone dioxide), zeolites (aluminosilicate minerals), and hydroxyapatite – a naturally occurring mineral form of calcium apatite.
Calcium carbonate is the most commonly used abrasive, and often acts as one of the bases for most brands of toothpaste.
Used for its solubility in water, and its effectiveness as a natural abrasive cleaning agent, calcium carbonate has many other medical uses, including in use for antacids.
As with dental polishing, these abrasive elements can play a small role in the erosion of the enamel on the teeth.
The level of abrasivity that a toothpaste has can be seen in its RDA value. RDA ratings of 250 and below are considered safe by both the American National Standards Institute, as well as the ADA (American Dental Association), and is recommended for lifetime use.
Simply put, fluoride is the most popular and commonly used ingredient for combating cavities and killing bacteria.
A naturally occurring substance, fluoride can be found in some plants, animals, and even some natural streams and water sources – as (usually) identified by the white, cloudiness of the water.
There are of course different kinds, but there are only two that are commonly used within the production of toothpaste: stannous fluoride, and sodium fluoride.
Stannous fluoride is considered the most effective of the two, with research showing it as more effective at preventing cavities and dental caries, as well as reducing the effects of gingivitis – an infection of the gums (or gingiva) caused by bacteria.
Stannous fluoride also has cosmetic effects, such as reduction in staining on the teeth, a natural whitening effect, and the eradication of halitosis (otherwise known as bad breath).
Other useful effects of stannous fluoride include a reduction in dental sensitivity, making it a common ingredient in toothpaste marketed for sensitive teeth.
Though not present in all toothpaste, most of them contain detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate, which acts as a foaming agent, making the toothpaste easier, more even, and more effective when brushing teeth.
Commonly used in the United Kingdom and the United States, the antibacterial agent triclosan is used as a means of killing harmful bacteria, improving oral health, preventing the build up of tartar, and fighting off the possibility of more severe diseases such as gingivitis.
Other antimicrobial products include chlorhexidine (although this is more commonly used in mouthwash) and occasionally, sodium laureth sulfate.
Most brands of toothpaste contain colorants and flavorings to make them more appealing to look at and use.
Flavors usually consist of wintergreen, peppermint, or spearmint as a standard breath freshener, although more obscure flavors around the world include aniseed, apricot, bubblegum, cinnamon, fennel, lavender, neem, ginger, vanilla, lemon, orange, and pine.
However, not all toothpastes even have flavor, but these flavorless types are few and far between.
Remineralization is a process of chemical repair, which the body can naturally go through to repair minor damage from the initial stages of tooth decay.
This is achieved through chemicals found in the saliva, but can be reinforced by various agents found in most toothpastes.
Notable agents used are casein phosphopeptide stabilized amorphous calcium phosphates (CPP-ACP), which have been widely seen to help reinforce the enamel of the teeth against decay and minor erosion.
Other components are added for practicality, such as to maintain toothpastes gel-like state. Common ingredients include glycerol, sorbitol, and xylitol.
Similarly, certain substances are used to curb sensitivity, such as strontium chloride and potassium nitrate.
Other substances, although less commonly used, include arginine and calcium sodium phosphosilicate.
Sodium polyphosphate is also added to most forms of toothpaste as a means of breaking down tartar, while sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda) is sometimes used in certain brands of toothpaste as an inactive ingredient.
Chlorhexidine can also be added to some toothpastes, due to its alleged effectiveness in reducing plaque and stopping gingivitis.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about the base ingredients in modern toothpaste, and the roles they play in keeping your teeth and gums clean and healthy.
For more information on the best products for you and your specific dental situation, always speak to your dentist, who can undoubtedly recommend the perfect product to help with your specific oral condition.