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The safest toothpaste

Posted by medconsumers on September 17, 2010

Ever go to the store for toothpaste only to have your eyeballs set spinning at the range of choices? Each brand has separate add-ons like fluoride, hydrogen peroxide, advanced whiteners, herbal flavors. There are toothpastes for sensitive teeth, dry mouth, bad breath, etc. I just wanted to buy a tube of Arm & Hammer baking soda toothpaste, but here too, there are multiple choices (“AGE defying with fluoride and liquid calcium”). And why, I wondered after learning about the anti-bacterial properties of baking soda, is it listed as an inactive ingredient.

I put in a call to Arm & Hammer to clear that up along with a few other things like why its toothpaste contains Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a “foaming agent” currently under a cloud of doubt over safety. While waiting for a response, I turned to the American Dental Association website, which has a list of ingredients that must be in all toothpastes it endorses. Baking soda is not on the list, but SLS is.

“SLS-free” has become a marketing tool proclaimed on the packaging of many dental products, though there’s no scientific consensus about the potential harms. (Environmental Working Group has compiled a long list of risks complete with references. click here). Like most chemicals in everyday consumer products, SLS was not well tested prior to introduction. The best that can be said about SLS in toothpaste is the amount is tiny and the use is brief. SLS probably shouldn’t be in toothpaste marketed for small children, who as a group might be inclined to swallow.

Another common ingredient in toothpaste that has recently stirred up safety concerns is triclosan. Last April, The Washington Post reported that it had obtained a copy of a letter to a congressman exploring drug safety issues. The letter quotes these FDA findings, “recent scientific studies raise questions about whether triclosan disrupts the body’s endocrine system and whether it helps to create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.”

Here’s what cancer-prevention expert Samuel Epstein, MD, wrote about triclosan in a March 24, 2010 article on the Huffington Post. “Unexpected volatility has been documented when the triclosan in liquid soaps and other household products comes into contact with water, as would happen during common use. At Virginia Tech University, a team of researchers in April 2005 reported that some toothpastes and soaps create a chloroform gas when the triclosan in these products reacts with chlorinated tap water.”

Unfortunately, the ADA lists triclosan as a recommended ingredient in toothpaste that helps “reduce bad breath”.

Oddly enough, I found, a commercial website selling dental products online, more helpful than the ADA. For example, it sells products that do and do not contain SLS and tells you why you might want to avoid SLS. “Many people around the world suffer from canker sores, also known as ‘mouth ulcers’. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a known ingredient in certain toothpastes, mouthwashes, shampoos and other cosmetic products and known to cause to canker sores. The harshness of this chemical has been proven to create microscopic damage to the oral tissue which lines the inside of your mouth, which then leads to canker sores.”

Remember the scandal of several years ago when Americans were advised to throw away any toothpaste with “made in China” on the label? At least 51 deaths in Panama were linked to toxins in the products. I’m now wary of “made in America” and “ADA endorsed.” I’ve decided to go back to using baking soda diluted with water in the palm of my hand. A&H never got back to me, so I contacted Dr. Paul Keyes who pioneered this method of toothbrushing and suggests several brushfuls of baking soda each time.

On the question of why baking soda is listed as an inactive ingredient, he suggests that A&H has no incentive to have the FDA approve it as an active ingredient: “If they make a therapeutic claim, they have to substantiate it to the FDA’s satisfaction, and that’s a very expensive process,” he said, “For a company like A&H—and I’m speculating here—it’s simply not worth it when you’re competing with Colgate, Procter & Gamble, etc.”

Here was my chance to ask Dr. Keyes, now in his nineties, about rinsing with a small amount of vinegar, say apple cider vinegar, as the antiseptic/foaming agent to replace SLS and hydrogen peroxide found in most toothpastes. “Vinegar works. If you don’t mind the taste, it can be a powerful combination—brushing with baking soda, which should be left on the teeth, and then rinsed with vinegar. You’ll get a mouth full of foam that really breaks things up.”

And what do you use, Dr. Keyes? “There are other combinations that work very well. I try different things—sometimes I try vinegar and peroxide in equal parts and that really loosens up plaque,” he answered. “I use simple salt or baking soda but sometimes I put regular toothpaste on the brush and then dip the brush in baking soda. I brush for one or two minutes, working this mixture between the teeth with a Butler stimulator or toothpick. The important thing for people to realize is that periodontal [gum] disease is preventable.”

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers(c)

3 Responses to “The safest toothpaste”

  1. Teresa Maslonka said

    Thank you for your excellent article! It helped fill in some gaps in my knowledge as I have been trying to find out more information on what appear to me to be “allergic reactions” to toothpaste.
    Over an extended period of time, I have suffered from very uncomfortable, daily, respiratory symptoms… Additionally, I had developed a chronic cough (I didn’t initially tie the two together.)
    While trying to resolve the problem, I noted that the symptoms showed up after I brushed my teeth. As an experiment, I tried various kinds of toothpastes, and eventually settled on baking soda and water. My daily respiratory symptoms are gone (and I’m no longer on an inhaler which my doctor prescribed for the chronic cough.)
    I can’t help but wonder now if the “chloroform gas” reaction may have been to blame.
    Thanks too for the input from Dr. Keyes about successful preventative actions to be taken (without toothpaste) to prevent gum disease. I’ll definitely take him up on that!

  2. Katherine Snelson said

    Since my grandson gets terrible canker sores which last for up to a week and hurt, I am grateful for the information which may be really helpful to him. Thank you.

  3. so now I’m wondering why “Tom’s of Maine” toothpaste has SLS in it – a supposedly “natural” product? I can’t thank you enough for this reporting – we’ve been switching over to baking soda because of your earlier report. Now I’m going to watch for SLS, as well.

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