Toothpaste Breakdown: Common Ingredients & How They Clean Your Teeth

All those ingredients listed on the side of your toothpaste tube serve a purpose -- to help keep your mouth healthy and clean. Photo courtesy of bradleypjohnson via CC license.

All those ingredients listed on the side of your toothpaste tube serve a purpose — to help keep your mouth healthy and clean. Photo courtesy of bradleypjohnson via CC License.

Toothpaste has been around longer than you might think. Ancient civilizations learned that a mixture of ashes, burnt eggshells and pumice yielded a powder that can be used to clean teeth. Modern toothpaste does not contain any of the original ingredients (thank goodness!), but how many of you actually know what makes up the concoction that we dab on our toothbrushes and scrub all over our teeth every morning and night?

Toothpastes, also called dentifrices, are pastes, gels or powders that help remove plaque and strengthen tooth enamel. So, what are all of those substances listed on the side of the tube?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common ingredients you will find in your toothpaste and why they are there:

  • Fluoride is the key active ingredient in toothpaste that has been demonstrated in numerous clinical trials to prevent tooth decay. Fluoride affects the bacteria that cause tooth decay, but its primary action is to incorporate into the tooth structure (enamel and dentin) making the tooth more resistant to acid attack by decay-causing bacteria. Without fluoride in the toothpaste, the cavity-preventing benefit from brushing your teeth is severely limited. Very few people brush thoroughly enough to prevent cavities by brushing alone.
  • Mild abrasives remove food debris and stains, as well as the sticky plaque that is always forming on the teeth. The goal is to make them abrasive enough for efficient cleaning, but not so abrasive as to damage the tooth enamel or the softer dentin or cementum that makes up the tooth root surface.
  • Humectants are organic compounds that hold water and help the toothpaste maintain its moisture even when exposed to air.
  • Binders or thickeners help keep the whole mix together in a nice paste or gel and stabilize this form. They provide the texture and flow to get the toothpaste onto the brush and keep it there.
  • Flavor, color and sweetening agents make brushing enjoyable by providing visual appeal, pleasing taste and fresher breath.
  • Antibacterial agents are added to reduce plaque growth, the sticky bacterial-laden film that forms constantly on the teeth and can eventually cause tooth decay and/or gingivitis and more serious gum diseases if not brushed away regularly..
  • Detergents in toothpaste create foaming action that helps the toothpaste coat the teeth. The foam helps reduce surface tension on the tooth, and makes cleaning easier and food particles or debris less likely to reattach to the tooth before it can be spit out.
  • Preservatives prevent the growth of microbes in the toothpaste.
  • Whiteners, desensitizers and tartar preventers. Other agents appear in toothpastes that make specific claims for whitening, desensitizing sensitive root surfaces, and preventing tartar/calculus buildup.

For best tooth decay prevention, we recommend brushing with fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day. So, when is the best time to become one with your favorite toothpaste? Preferably right before bed and in the morning, but soon after meals is also effective.

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