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The Life-Cycle of Toothpaste
Ben Block, 27 Apr 10

The toothbrush, in various forms, has long been well-regarded as the best tool for a healthy mouth. What to use with it, however, is a more complicated, at times toxic, tale.

The first recorded suggestion is from fourth-century Egypt, when a scribe wrote that a mixture of rock salt, mint, dried iris flower, and pepper formed a "powder for white and perfect teeth." Concoctions in the centuries since often included crushed coral or volcanic rock. These powders removed stains and tooth enamel equally well. Soap-based pastes replaced powders in the late nineteenth century, though with little improvement. Columbia University chemist William Giles, an early-twentieth-century researcher, described the pastes as "hard and sharp enough to cut glass." One 1930s product, Tartaroff, contained 1.2 percent hydrochloric acid; a single application could destroy 3 percent of a tooth's enamel, according to James Wynbrandt's Excruciating History of Dentistry.

By the 1940s, consumers were brushing with the kind of toothpaste used today. A chemical cocktail that polishes, strengthens, and defends teeth from the day's invasion of bacteria. Ingredients typically include fluoride to prevent decay, triclosan to prevent infected gums, sodium pyrophosphate to remove tartar, and saccharin to please the taste buds. More than 356 million kilograms of toothpaste was traded in 2006.

With every mouthful of toothpaste spat down the drain, a mix of questionably problematic chemicals flows into rivers, lakes, and oceans downstream.

Some researchers are concerned that triclosan, an antibiotic, may become so prevalent that bacteria found in the environment and humans will develop resistance. (Research has so far been inconclusive.) A recent study has also shown that low-level exposure to triclosan can disrupt the common North American bullfrog's hormone system.

Sodium pyrophosphate removes minerals that develop in saliva after meals, thus preventing tartar build-up. But it contains phosphorus, and while its role is minor compared to fertilizer runoff, toothpaste contributes to excessive algal growth in waterways. Decomposing algae suck the oxygen out of the water, killing off marine life and creating huge "dead zones." A recent Science study found more than 405 of the zones worldwide, up from 49 in the 1960s.

Apart from isolated contaminants such as the toxic diethylene glycol introduced into Chinese-made products in 2007, toothpaste's most controversial ingredient by far is fluoride. Naturally found in rocks and groundwater, fluoride was first added to toothpaste in 1914 to prevent tooth decay. Its addition is considered the single most important reason for the developed world's reduced incidence of cavities since then.

The cause for controversy is the well-intentioned public health officials who, since 1944, have mixed fluoride into drinking water. Opponents say the 210 million people worldwide with access to fluoridated water are overexposed because toothpaste already provides them with enough. The risks include severe tooth stains and increased chance of bone fractures, according to the U.S. National Academies of Science. In Western Europe, 17 of 21 countries have either refused or discontinued fluoridation.

Since the China incident, natural and organic personal care products, including toothpaste, have been selling at higher rates than their traditional counterparts. Natural products replace plaque removers with calcium carbonate, tartar controls with zinc, and artificial sweeteners with peppermint leaves. Fluoride is either omitted entirely or its concentration is lower than in conventional toothpastes. Global sales approached $7 billion in 2007 and may surpass $10 billion by 2010, according to Organic Monitor research. As evidence of the trend: Colgate three years ago purchased leading natural company Tom's of Maine for $100 million.

Ben Block is the staff writer for World Watch. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress/Bob Hope Archives. Photo Caption: Toothpaste packaging from the 1940s featuring Bob Hope.

Other "Life-Cycle" studies by Ben include:
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Interesting. It's funny how you know so little about something you use everyday. rain barrel

Posted by: Melanie on 6 May 10

I recently started using neem toothpaste because of its more natural ingredients. Made from naam twigs which is said to be very good for oral hygiene including breath freshener and killing germs. Used in the old days in India before the days of toothpaste.

One reason i choose to try it was because i am concerned that we are taking too many man-made chemiclas into our bodies when natural products will do the job just fine. I prefer to use something more natural, if it works and then use the man-made alternate to make-up the difference.

From some of the things i have read, some of the man-made synthetic replacements tend not to be a effective but they certainly cost a lot and make the companies alot of money.

Posted by: Stephen on 20 Jul 10

One reason i choose to try it was because i am concerned that we are taking too many man-made chemiclas into our bodies when natural products will do the job just fine. I prefer to use something more natural, if it works and then use the man-made alternate to make-up the difference.
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Posted by: kobi on 9 Oct 10

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