Your next toothpaste can help remineralise your teeth and protect your enamel, or it can damage them, dry your gums and increase the risk of developing ulcers. It all depends on its composition. We already learned how to spot the perfect toothpaste. Now let’s have a closer look at the important features of today’s toothpastes to learn how to identify and ditch the harmful ones.
1. Protect your teeth from scratches and weakening caused by harsh abrasives
Abrasives are tiny insoluble particles that help your toothbrush to get rid of the bacterial film on your teeth, also known as tooth plaque. Abrasives are what makes your toothpaste thick and support its cleaning capabilities. Sodium bicarbonate (basically, baking soda) is the most well-known abrasive, and is also a whitening agent. Hydrated silica is another common and perfectly safe abrasive found in many toothpastes.
All abrasives used in toothpastes are non-toxic, so it doesn’t matter which material is used: sodium, aluminium or calcium. All of them are used in an insoluble form so they can function as abrasive particles. So, what matters the most is how small or big the particles are. If they are very fine, you can experience a smoother, more pleasant brushing with zero stress on your enamel. On the other hand, if the abrasive particles are large and coarse, they can damage your enamel and irritate your gums.
To measure the hardness and overall abrasion of a toothpaste, we use the RDA index — relative dentine abrasion value.
✅ The lowest RDA is between 20 and 70. Toothpastes with RDA below 70 feel soft and cause no damage to the enamel. Lower RDA means finer particles, which means gentle but still-effective cleaning properties of a toothpaste.
🤔 Medium RDA is between 70 and 100. A toothpaste with medium RDA (above 70) is an accepted mid-level of abrasion, and is suitable for long-term use so long as you have strong healthy teeth. Most toothpastes on the market will fall into this category.
❌ High RDA is between 100 and 150. This level of abrasion is not considered safe and therefore toothpastes with this RDA should be avoided.
2. Watch out for aggressive surface-active agents
A surfactant is an agent that helps to form bubbles, thick foam and spread liquids over surfaces. It helps make toothpaste reach into even the narrowest spaces between the teeth. Many surfactants are completely safe, and won’t react with the teeth or the mucous lining of your mouth. Without surfactants, your toothpaste would stick to your teeth in lumps.
Unfortunately, not all surfactants are equally safe. One you should avoid for sure, is SLS – sodium lauryl sulfate. SLS has been proven to cause gum irritation or allergic reactions, especially when used frequently on the mucous lining in a mouth. Additionally, if you are using a sonic toothbrush, you should be aware that it can in fact clean more thoroughly when not covered in foam, and SLS is the main ingredient responsible for high levels of foam in a toothpaste. So the basic rule when using an electronic toothbrush is to avoid SLS-containing toothpastes completely.
If you have to brush your teeth once or twice with an SLS-containing toothpaste, don’t worry: single short-term use will not affect you in any way other than the alteration of your taste for a short while. SLS can cause that delicious coffee or orange juice to taste bitter and unpleasant. The taste alteration after toothbrushing is another reason why it is recommended to exclude SLS containing toothpastes from your regular home oral-care routine.
3. Keep away from toothpastes containing microplastics
Microplastics are microscopic fibres and beads of plastic found mainly in water and soil. According to National Geographic, they are defined as plastics less than five millimetres in diameter. Their existence is a big part of the result of the environmental crisis, producing millions of tonnes of plastic waste. All that waste is eventually dumped into soil and water, where it will take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. Many manufacturers add plastic microbeads to their cosmetic products because of their scrubbing properties. This is very harmful trend, as microplastics have been found in many animals, water supplies and possibly even in humans. Therefore, toothpastes – and any cosmetic products in general – containing microplastics, should be avoided at all costs.
4. Avoid unnecessary additives like bleaching agents, parabens, triclosan or diethanolamine
When we move beyond basic components, there is a whole universe of additives that should not be a part of a proper toothpaste. Many of them may be harmful – not only for your teeth and oral mucosa, but also for various organs if used for a long time.
The most common harmful ingredients are:
❌ Bleaching agents in large quantities usually have a fast whitening effect. But they also weaken the enamel and offset the chemical balance, making your teeth more vulnerable to bacteria and other damage. Healthy and gentle whitening can be achieved through enzymatic mechanisms with safe concentrations of other whitening agents.
❌ Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent. It acts against certain bacteria and helps prevent gingivitis. However, when used for a long time, it also builds up bacterial resistance. Animal testing has also suggested there is a carcinogenic effect of triclosan, so we recommend to avoid it.
❌ Parabens are mostly used as a preservative for long shelf life, because of their antimicrobial properties. These agents can disrupt the hormonal system by mimicking the hormone estrogen. In some cases, prolonged use of parabens on skin or mucous layers may even lead to breast cancer.
❌ Diethanolamine (DEA) and DEA – related ingredients serve as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics. Sometimes, it is used to adjust a product’s pH (acidity). Diethanolamine has been classified as a carcinogen and also as being “possibly carcinogenic to humans with sufficient evidence in experimental animals” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.