The Natural Smile

New Toothpastes Clean Without the Chemicals

Like Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, most of us are exposed to hundreds of synthetic chemicals every day, many of them coming from the products we routinely use to clean, scent and groom ourselves. Though most of us aren’t getting any smaller, some are becoming increasingly concerned about what this "better living through chemistry" is doing to our bodies.

Ever wonder why your toothpaste tube carries a message urging you to call poison control if you swallow more than the "amount used for brushing"? Well, toothpaste contains potentially hazardous chemicals, which can work their way into your system through accidental swallowing (especially in children). Long-term repeated exposure to most ingredients has not been clinically tested.

Conventional toothpastes contain saccharin as a sweetener. Although it has not been proven that saccharin causes cancer in humans, numerous studies have linked it to cancer in laboratory animals, and some experts, including Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois Medical Center and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, recommend that consumers avoid it.

Leslie Lakind, a Santa Fe, New Mexico dentist, says that dental consumers should read labels and do research. "While it’s reasonable to question natural ingredients as well, I won’t use artificial colors and sweeteners, saccharin or preservatives if I have an alternative," he says.

Questioning Fluoridation and Carcinogens

Fluoride has also come under fire in recent years because of its suspected ties to bone cancer, hip fractures and fluorosis. The American Dental Association (ADA) strongly endorses fluoride-containing products, claiming they are safe and effective for cavity prevention. For consumers who do choose to avoid the chemical, however, Tom’s of Maine makes fluoride-free natural toothpaste for adults and children ($2.99).

According to the British Dental Society, triclosan is the most often used antibacterial agent in toothpastes. The Environmental Protection Agency registers triclosan as a pesticide and a chlorophenol, part of a class of chemicals thought to cause cancer in humans. Time recently reported that in the past two years, "Researchers have shown that some germs can, at least in the laboratory, mutate to counter triclosan’s effects." Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, a foaming agent, and sorbitol are two other oral hygiene ingredients whose safety has been questioned.

For many years the alternatives to mass-market toothpastes were plain baking soda or really offensive-tasting pastes that most adults didn’t enjoy and kids refused. New pastes taste great (if less sweet than those with saccharin), and the dental establishment is warming to them. The ADA has awarded its seal to Tom’s of Maine products. The Journal of Clinical Dentistry found that Herbal Toothpaste and Gum Therapy from The Natural Dentist outperformed Colgate Total in reducing gingivitis and teeth stains. The Natural Dentist makes pastes and gels in flavors such as Mint, Cinnamon and Fennel ($5.79) that contain sodium laureth sulfate, but don’t use artificial sweeteners, preservatives or dyes. Peelu Toothpaste, which comes in Spearmint, Cinnamon and Peppermint flavors, uses peelu, a vegetable fiber, as an abrasive and glycerine as a cleanser, rather than a synthetic detergent ($5.95).

Weleda makes a toothpaste free of saccharin and sodium lauryl sulfate. Its Pink Toothpaste with Myrrh ($4.99) contains nine essential oils for gum health, and its Children’s Tooth Gel ($4.49) is made especially for young teeth.

Whitening Teeth Without Lye

A rising trend in natural toothpastes is whitening. Tom’s of Maine makes a whitening toothpaste ($4.79) that uses silica; Jason Natural Products uses both silica and bamboo powder ($5.49). Most conventional whitening toothpastes use sodium or potassium hydroxides, also known as lye, which is considered a poison by the Food and Drug Administration.

If you have sensitive teeth, there are quite a few natural ingredients to help reduce discomfort from cold, heat, acids and sweets. Jason Oral Comfort Toothpaste ($4.79) uses essential oils of mint, menthol, clove, thymol, aloe vera and grapefruit seed extract, replacing the potassium nitrate found in traditional toothpastes. If gingivitis is a concern, Jason makes a whole line of toothpastes and a mouthwash with CoQ10, a naturally occurring antioxidant found in higher levels in healthy gums. Perilla seed extract, an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory herb, and natural flavors round out the concoction.

If you are taking homeopathic remedies, you probably know that numerous ingredients, especially mint oils, can inhibit their efficacy. Tom’s makes two pastes that are compatible with homeopathics ($4.69). Also, according to Marketing Director Kathleen Taggersall, "All Tom’s products are biodegradable, and packaging is made from recycled sources and can be recycled."

Over a lifetime, most people throw away hundreds of toothbrushes. Recycline’s toothbrushes for adults and kids ($3.29 to $3.79) are made from Stonyfield Farms yogurt tops, which saves landfill space. Each brush comes with a pre-paid envelope, so it can be returned to the company for recycling after use. Eco-Dent, which makes the Terradent toothbrush, reduces waste from the get-go, with a "permanent" brush handle; only the brushes get replaced ($3.79 for three brushes, $3.99 for the handle). Recycline also makes a tongue cleaner, which is returnable for recycling ($3.59). Its manufacturer says it improves breath (by scraping off bacteria-collecting mucus from the back of the tongue). Jason also offers a specially contoured tongue brush ($4.49).

Mouthwashes do more than make your breath smell good: They are also an excellent way to kill the bacteria that cause plaque. Most natural mouthwashes are made without alcohol, which can be overly drying or irritating to many users. Jason makes five varieties for all kinds of dental needs, and Eco-Dent comes in Spicy-Cool Cinnamon or Sparkling Cool Mint. The Natural Dentist’s Mouthrinse kills more bacteria than Listerine, according to the New York University College of Dentistry. The rinse uses goldenseal as an astringent and aloe, grapefruit seed extract and echinacea as gum stimulants.

People are living longer, and that presents new challenges to keep our teeth intact—naturally.

STARRE VARTAN is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.