Toothpaste is a day-to-day essential that many of us give little thought to. Often, we buy the same brand we've used all our lives, or simply grab the first one that comes to hand when we're out shopping. But toothpastes come in all kinds of formulas, and contain a variety of active ingredients besides fluoride, so it's worth knowing a little about these ingredients, and the jobs they're designed to do.
Most toothpastes contain fluoride, a mineral that can help prevent tooth decay. Fluoride also occurs naturally in water, in varying amounts, depending on whereabouts in the UK you live. Brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste has been shown to be an effective way to prevent tooth decay.
Toothpastes contain different levels of fluoride. You'll find the amount on the side of the tube, measured in parts per million (ppm). Adults are advised to brush at least twice daily with a toothpaste containing between 1350 and 1500ppm of fluoride. Avoid using mouthwash directly after brushing, as you'll risk washing away the fluoride from your toothpaste.
If tooth decay is a concern, speak to your dentist; they may advise you to use a toothpaste with a higher level of fluoride.
Certain toothpaste brands contain ingredients to help ease the pain and discomfort some of us experience when consuming hot, cold or sweet foods and drinks.
If your teeth are very sensitive, it's best to consult your dentist too, in case the sensitivity is due to an underlying dental problem that needs to be treated. It's also worth keeping an eye on your brushing style, as brushing too vigorously can be hard on teeth and gums and can make them more sensitive.
Some toothpastes contain ingredients designed to reduce stains from smoking, and from drinking tea, coffee and red wine, and to make teeth appear whiter.
Could my toothpaste be causing irritation?
We don't tend to think of toothpaste as something we can be allergic to – but as well as the necessary active ingredients such as fluoride, toothpastes contain many inactive ingredients. In rare cases, some of these can cause an allergic reaction in certain people.
Common inactive ingredients in toothpaste include:
• Flavourings, such as spearmint, peppermint, fennel and cinnamon or cassia oil
• Foaming agents
• Binding agents
Symptoms of an allergic reaction may include redness or swelling in the mouth, dryness and 'cracking' at the sides of the mouth, or general irritation of the mouth and lips. If you have a reaction to your toothpaste, you may benefit from switching to a different brand – if you're unsure, you can consult your dentist or pharmacist for advice.
What about organic toothpaste?
Most brands of organic toothpaste replace common active ingredients with herbs and essential oils. Fluoride is naturally occurring, so certain organic brands contain it, whereas others don't. Have a chat to your dentist or pharmacist if you want to know more about how organic toothpaste works.
Tooth-brushing tips for kids
Young children are more at risk of tooth decay than adults. They're more drawn to sugary foods and drinks than adults but are less likely to brush their teeth properly, or for long enough. These guidelines may be helpful:
• Under-threes should brush twice daily with a smear of toothpaste containing at least 1000ppm of fluoride
• Children between three and six should brush at least twice daily with a pea-sized blob of toothpaste with more than 1000ppm fluoride
• Children aged seven and over, like adults, should brush at least twice daily with a toothpaste containing 1350-1500ppm of fluoride
• Encourage your child to spit out any excess toothpaste after brushing and make sure they don't lick or eat toothpaste from the tube, as there can be side effects from consuming too much fluoride.
• Use a toothpaste that contains the recommended minimum level of fluoride for your/your child's age
• Speak to your dentist or pharmacist about which toothpaste is most suitable for you