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Take the guesswork out of choosing toothpaste

Toothpastes in the background with a closeup on the ingredients list .

You run out of toothpaste and find yourself once again in the aisle with dozens of options. Do you go with the brand you have been using since childhood? Maybe you pick one because the packaging catches your eye, or maybe you are more practical and are looking for something that you hope will prevent troubling mouth problems. Whatever your strategy, Cherri Kading, R.D.H., M.S., assistant professor and director of clinical operations at the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, gives tips on how to find the best toothpaste for you.

“Choosing a toothpaste can be tricky, especially because there are so many options—from pastes or gels to whitening, breath-freshening or sensitivity, there is a product out there for everyone,” Kading says. Most importantly, she notes, look for a toothpaste stamped with the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval. The ADA tests products for safety and effectiveness and can help take the guesswork out of finding a quality toothpaste.

The essential ingredient in any toothpaste is fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral that has been used to prevent cavities for the last 50 years. Everything else, Kading says, is really just personal preference.

Toothpastes for a whiter smile

Looking for a toothpaste that will make your smile a little brighter? You may not actually need a special whitening toothpaste. Whitening toothpastes can instantly remove everyday stains caused by dark-colored drinks like coffee and red wine, but the same effect can be achieved over time by brushing diligently each day.

If you’re intent on finding a whitening paste, look for abrasives such as magnesium carbonate, hydrated aluminum oxides and calcium carbonate, which can remove surface stains to make teeth appear whiter and brighter. Hydrogen peroxide is another common whitening agent and can produce excellent results over a longer period of time. However this ingredient may cause some people to experience some sensitivity; if this occurs, Kading says that it is best to switch to a regular or desensitizing toothpaste.

If you are looking for a more long-term solution, Kading recommends a treatment with a bleaching agent. “Whitening toothpastes are good at removing stains, which make your teeth appear whiter,” she says, “but the only way to actually change the color of enamel is through bleaching, whether with over-the-counter whitening strips or in-office treatments.”

Have sensitive teeth?

People with sensitive teeth may be surprised to find that they don’t need a prescription toothpaste to effectively treat the issue; many over-the-counter products will do the trick. Don’t just make the switch on your own though; Kading recommends seeing your dentist first to make sure a bigger issue isn’t causing the sensitivity.

“When patients come in complaining of sensitivity issues, we start them out on an over-the-counter toothpaste that contains ingredients like potassium nitrate, and many times that is enough,” Kading says. The chemical compound works to block pathways through the teeth that attach to nerves inside the teeth.

Worth noting is that the toothpaste can take some time to offer relief, as it must replace regular toothpaste and be used daily for two to six weeks before seeing results. And relief doesn’t necessarily mean sensitivity is gone for good, Kading says; it may return if you stop using the toothpaste.

Controlling tartar

Plaque is bad, but tartar is worse.

“Tartar, or calculus, is hardened plaque that cannot be removed just by brushing. When your dentist is scraping away at your teeth with the metal pick, that is what they are removing,” Kading says.

Tartar control toothpastes that contain pyrophosphates or zinc citrate are a great way to help prevent plaque from hardening into tartar. Some may experience tissue sloughing (the wearing away of gum tissue) or tissue burning. Stop use of the toothpaste and symptoms should go away within a few days if the toothpaste is the cause.

The natural option

Some people simply don’t want all of the chemicals that can be found in toothpaste; they want a toothpaste with ingredients they can pronounce. There are options out there that work just as well as the competition—if they have the ADA seal of approval—and instead of using chemicals, like fluoride, they use herbs and other natural ingredients. Kading recommends looking for these ingredients:

  • Green tea extract: claims to fight bacteria and bad breath
  • Papaya plant extract: claims to whiten enamel
  • Zinc oxide and citric acid: claims to prevent tartar
  • Tea tree oil: claims to have antibacterial properties

“When choosing a natural toothpaste, consumers must be diligent label readers and researchers. Look up ingredients to see what they are used for to make sure you get what you are looking for. Check with a dental professional if you have any questions,” Kading says.

Kading leaves us with this piece of advice, “The toothpaste aisle can be daunting, but you can always trust your dental professional to give you recommendations that are best for you.”

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