Toothpaste is a very common compound that we put in our mouths every day, yet many people don’t know what exactly is inside of toothpaste, or even what it does. Here’s a little primer on toothpaste that will help you understand and appreciate what you put in your mouth each day.
Toothpaste serves a number of functions when it comes to oral hygiene. Certain components in toothpaste are actually a little abrasive and they’re designed to remove the soft plaque and food particles that accumulate on your teeth. These abrasive agents actually make up about 50% of what’s in your toothpaste. The word “abrasive” may be alarming to some people because it conjures up images of sandpaper, grit and other harsh materials.
Although the action of the abrasives in toothpaste operates on the same principle that sandpaper does, the degree of abrasion is relatively small. Students in a dental hygienist program learn that any surface abrasion to the enamel that occurs is quickly repaired through a process known as remineralization.
Remineralization is the process by which your body naturally adds new minerals to the tooth surface to protect, rebuild and restore the enamel. Remineralization won’t be sufficient to repair serious gouges, chips or cracks in the surface of the enamel, but it will rebuild any damage a mild abrasive might possibly cause. Some toothpastes may also include ingredients in addition to fluoride that promote remineralization of the enamel.
To avoid long-term damage from brushing, use a soft bristled toothbrush only (unless your dentist recommends otherwise), and change your toothbrush every three months, or sooner if the bristles show signs of wear or damage. If your toothbrush bristles are crushed and splayed by the time you change toothbrushes, you’re probably applying too much pressure to your teeth when brushing.
After the abrasives, your toothpaste contains fluorides that can aid in the process of remineralization and cut down on the incidence of tooth decay. Your dentist will recommend the use of fluoridated toothpaste in most circumstances, and not all toothpastes have fluoride. If your dentist has recommended fluoride toothpaste, check the label of your paste carefully to ensure that it contains fluoride. The fluoride in the toothpaste should offer sufficient protection against tooth decay, provided that you brush your teeth regularly and you take good care of your teeth.
Your toothpaste also probably contains a surfactant, which is a foaming agent. The foaming agent helps distribute the toothpaste more evenly around your mouth. Some people don’t like the foaminess of certain toothpastes. If this describes you, try different toothpastes to see if you can find one that doesn’t produce quite as much foam.
Other ingredients that are commonly found in toothpastes include antibacterial agents that help to reduce bacterial colonization in the mouth. These anti-bacterial agents will provide a temporary reduction in the bacteria population, and will contribute to better breath and a cleaner mouth. Keep in mind, however, that there are more than 600 different kinds of bacteria in your mouth, and no anti-bacterial agent is universal. In other words, the anti-bacterial ingredients in toothpaste won’t be effective against all kinds of bacteria that grow in your mouth!
More recently, toothpaste manufacturers have begun to include tartar control agents and whiteners in toothpastes. Whitening toothpastes often contain peroxide, which will kill some types of bacteria, but it has only a mild whitening effect in the concentrations used in toothpaste. Whiteners usually contain extra abrasives that are designed to penetrate stains on the surface of tooth enamel. These are generally not more effective than regular dental cleaning, and will not change the natural color of tooth enamel the way a bleaching agent can.
Last but not least, you’ll find flavoring and coloring agents that are designed to make the toothpaste palatable to the tongue and pleasing to the eye.