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What’s in Toothpaste? And How Does It Work?

For as long as we can remember, we’ve used toothpaste on a regular basis. But never asked why. We can talk about how brushing with toothpaste helps scrub off the plaque build-up on the surface of the teeth. Or how it helps our saliva wash any stray sugars that oral bacteria can convert into acid. But what’s in toothpaste? And how does it work?

Before we get into this, let’s first ask: why do we use toothpaste in the first place? Humans have been using toothpaste longer than they’ve been using toothbrushes, but why? The first toothpaste was more abrasive than their modern counterparts. Dr. Thomas P. Connelly, DDS notes in his Huffington Post article that Ancient Egyptians made use of “dental creams” around 3000-5000 BC. This cream made use of things like ox hooves and pumice, which helped scrape away plaque. The Greeks and Romans then added to these abrasive elements with crushed shells and bones. Since the creams already did their part, there was no need for brushes to help scrape the gunk further.

As times progressed and needs changed, however, the abrasive element did more harm than good. Eventually, the need for toothbrushes flourished, and toothpaste became smoother in texture. What it did lack in harsh agents, however, it made up for in antibacterial and fortifying agents. 

All this considered, let’s look further into what toothpaste consists of and how they work:

Toothpaste now target modern oral problems 

As contemporary times rolled on, new issues came to surface. For one, modern diets often contained more additives, which in turn provided more fuel for bacteria to work with. For another, new oral ailments began to surface, which toothpaste attempted to remedy. It’s for this reason why current toothpaste has the ingredients they do. 

Previously, we did a brief breakdown of the common ingredients found in toothpaste. In a nutshell, they are:

  • A whitening agent 
  • A detergent
  • Fluoride
  • An agent to help sensitive teeth

How do these ingredients work?

  • Whitening agents are abrasive, as they scour the surface of the tooth enamel. As we mentioned in a previous article, teeth can discolor as a result of debris deposits in the enamel pores. These deposits can come from an array of compounds found in tobacco, wine, or tea. What whitening agents do, then, is break down these deposits. For commercial toothpaste, this is typically hydrogen peroxide.
  • Detergents cleanse the teeth of plaque build-up by breaking its surface tension. In toothpaste, this is usually lauryl glucoside. Other brands have come up with alternatives to counteract its allergenic effects.
  • Fluoride, as previously discussed, helps in preventing repeat instances of tooth decay. It does this by binding with other compounds in the teeth, fortifying them against bacterial acid attacks. It’s strange to think, then, that it was only during the 50s and 60s that fluoride became a standard for all toothpaste.
  • Tooth sensitivity has become more widespread in recent years, which is why some toothpaste contains ingredients that help alleviate the condition. These include stannous fluoride and potassium nitrate, among others.
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