Here's what the experts have to say about the different terms and claims you might see on toothpaste labels:

  • Get a fluoride toothpaste. Experts say brushing with a toothpaste that contains fluoride is important for preventing cavities. On the label, this may be called stannous fluoride, sodium fluoride or monofluoride phosphate (MFP). This is the ingredient all oral care professionals seem to agree upon as the basis for using commercial toothpastes. As long as the product has fluoride, it will help maintain oral health. However, stannous fluoride can stain teeth.
  • Look for the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance. The ADA awards its seal only after reviewing the "appropriate clinical and/or laboratory studies and scientific data." Any toothpaste with the ADA seal has been proven safe and effective for the claims on its label. Though there is a fee to apply, not all applications are approved.
  • Experts are mixed on tartar control formulas. The active tartar-control ingredient, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, has been proven to prevent tartar, but it can't remove tartar already on the teeth. Only a professional cleaning can do that. Some dentists say tartar-control pastes can cause mouth irritation, and do not do enough extra to warrant the risk of this irritation except for extremely tartar-prone patients.
  • "Whitening" toothpastes are over-hyped. While the ADA believes current levels of hydrogen peroxide in some whitening toothpastes are safe, some dental experts say peroxide can irritate and damage gum tissue. The bubbling may make you feel like you're getting a better cleaning, and when combined with baking soda, hydrogen peroxide does kill bacteria that cause gum problems. However, most experts say fluoride plus triclosan is a better bet. No toothpaste has been proven effective in actually changing the color of teeth. The whitening toothpastes merely clean surface stains and cannot change the underlying tooth color.
  • Sensitive formulas can help those with mouth pain. These work for mild cases of tooth hypersensitivity, but expect to wait four to six weeks before you feel any results. The ADA recognizes two effective ingredients in treating sensitive teeth and gums: strontium chloride and potassium nitrate. These "block the tube-like channels that pass through teeth and connect to nerves," thereby reducing "the ability of the nerves to transmit pain," says the ADA. Keep in mind that these won't work for tooth pain caused by cavities or tooth problems other than receding gums.
  • Avoid SLS if you have sensitive teeth or are prone to canker sores. Sodium lauryl sulfate can irritate the gums and lining of the mouth in some people. If you are prone to mouth sensitivity or canker sores, dentists recommend choosing a fluoride toothpaste that does not contain SLS.
  • Consider the level of abrasiveness. Abrasive ingredients are essential for removing plaque, and are usually in the form of hydrated silica or calcium carbonate. Polishing alumina added to hydrated silica is especially effective. All ADA-approved toothpastes are within certain limits, but the range is quite great. Some dentists advise erring in the direction of low abrasiveness.
  • Although toothpaste commercials often show actors squirting a huge, swirling amount of toothpaste on the brush, experts stress that you need no more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste to do the job -- more than that is just product waste. Kids require even less.

Back to top