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We Aren’t Paying Enough Attention to the Bad Chemicals in Our Toothpaste

In Europe, laws requires manufacturers to submit a full set of toxicity data before a chemical can be approved for use. Why doesn't the US?

Helaina Hovitz

Helaina Hovitz

Image via Pexels

This is an opinion piece by writer Helaina Hovitz.

In December, a visit to a new dentist revealed that my very sensitive and oh-so-delicate teeth were once again in need of some fillings. A ridiculous number, actually. How, I ask myself every year, does this keep happening? I am a super duper brusher and flosser and I’m not a sugar addict. Not willing to have half of my mouth drilled away, I went for a second opinion, to Dr. Lewis Gross, a referral from my dad. Dr. Gross told me I had high acidity in my mouth, which was likely why I was so cavity prone. I didn’t have half a mouth’s worth of cavities, geez.

Still, I wanted to know why all of my gold-star worthy brush and floss routine wasn’t doing jack. I was using everything recommended to me. I was doing it every day. Could it be that what I was using just wasn’t working?

We’ve asked for transparency when it comes to chemicals used by Big Tobacco, in makeup and body wash, in our food, in our beverages, when it comes to everything from what’s in them, how they’re tested, where they’re sourced and even what wages and working conditions are paid to those folks who produce them all.

How often have we called for this kind of attention when it comes to what’s in our floss, toothpaste, and mouthwash, and why so many of us seem to have cavities every year? Anyone? Doesn’t it seem odd, when we have entire publications dedicated to preventive care, like Ariana Huffington’s Sleep-Centric Self-Care site, glossy women’s magazines about fitness and nutrition, and labels on food products that didn’t exist ten years ago, that we pay so little attention to what else we put in our mouths?


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We have to listen to the news talk about why coffee is or isn't bad for us every other day, study after study, yet we don’t get the same exposure to studies about our oral care regimen in mainstream print and broadcast media as we do about sleep and exercise.

As it turns out, about 96 percent of us are actually walking around with cavities, something I didn’t know until I was told so by James Hagen, founder of the natural oral care products company, Boka. Based on his knowledge of the current dental industry—his parents manufactured dental products in their Minnesota basement growing up— he decided it’s time to be more mindful of what we put in our mouths.

Most people, says Hagen, don't realize that many of the ingredients found in the most popular toothpastes and mouthwashes on the market are actually hurting our mouths: did you know, for example, that the alcohol in mouthwash, while killing 99 percent of bacteria, disrupts the microbiome, dries out the gums and leads to bad breath, ironically? It also may be linked to oral cancer.

“The dental industry has a perverse attitude toward oral wellness. Rather than create a healthy salivary environment, we are prescribed dangerous chemicals such as Fluoride, chlorine, or alcohols, which dry the mouth."

As for fluoride in your toothpaste, it’s not really enough to make a difference. Toothpaste does, however, also contain toxic ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which can actually be an irritant; Diethanolamine, which had some pretty brutal effects on animals (aside from the upsetting fact that this was testing on animals at all, more upsetting still is the fact that it sent some of them into a coma, burned their skin, elevated their blood pressure and impaired their vision); and microbeads, the stuff that’s being banned from soaps and body washes around the world, including in the U.S..

The American Dental Association (ADA) Council on Scientific Affairs has independently reviewed data on the safety and effectiveness of triclosan/copolymer for reducing cavities, plaque and gingivitis, and awarded it the ADA Seal “seal of approval.”

“The dental industry has a perverse attitude toward oral wellness. Rather than create a healthy salivary environment, we are prescribed dangerous chemicals such as Fluoride, chlorine, or alcohols, which dry the mouth,” says Dr. Gross, who also maintains that most over-the-counter cleaning and teeth bleaching products should be substituted with turmeric, baking soda, tea tree oil and peppermint oil. Like Hagen, Dr. Gross has formulated his own mouth tabs and rinses, called Alka-White, whose main ingredient is alkaline, which counters the acidity and help restore the pH balance in most people’s mouths.

The most controversial ingredient in toothpaste, Hagen went on to assert, is triclosan, which studies have found can be harmful not to just humans and animals, but even the environment. And where does your toothpaste go when you spit it out? Yep.

And as for that notion that when you can feel the burn in your mouth while using mouthwash—commercials even show people going bug-eyed after mere seconds— that means it’s working. Not so much. That may have worked for Jane Fonda and her workout videos, but foaming and burning within the mouth is actually causing harm, says Hagen, not a deep clean.

“The EU has it right in that it's up to the manufacturer to prove that the ingredients are safe—requiring toxicity analysis,” says Hagen. In other words, they make it the company’s responsibility to be fully transparent. In the U.S., however, Business Insider reported that the federal government’s approach to chemical management sets a very high bar for the “proof of harm”—i.e., how much damage it’s causing your body—they need to see before any regulatory action is taken. This is true of the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law that regulates chemicals used commercially in the U.S.

European law regulating chemicals in commerce, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), requires manufacturers to submit a full set of toxicity data to the European Chemical Agency before a chemical can be approved for use. Let’s call for that.

We’ve asked for transparency when it comes to chemicals used by Big Tobacco, in makeup and body wash, in our food, in our beverages, when it comes to everything from what’s in them, how they’re tested, where they’re sourced and even what wages and working conditions are paid to those folks who produce them all.

Even if you don’t convert over to an alternative like Boka or Alka-White, start reading those labels more carefully and educate yourself. As with any product you put in your body, give more thought to whether you can pronounce it or not, and take a quick trip around Google. “Additionally, look for natural ingredients, like essential oils, instead of artificial flavors (Aspartame, Sachharin) and synthetic dyes (FD&C Blue Dye No. 2 ), all of which should just be avoided,” says Hagen.

You’ll want to look for brands that don’t have sodium lauryl sulfate, but sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, derived from a natural amino acid that exists in the body. There are at least four pretty well known brands out there to choose from.

If this insight gets you motivated enough to want to do more, call your elected officials to ask them to support the consumer first over big business—in other words, write them and ask for the same accountability we ask for in so many other products to be considered when it comes to one of the only consumer goods almost every single person on earth uses on a daily basis.