Ask a Florida Dentist: How Does Toothpaste Work?

Dear South Florida Dental Arts,My seven-year-old son got a lesson in how to brush his teeth at school this week, and he was frustrated when the dentist didn’t call on him during Q-and-A. He wanted to know how toothpaste works, and honestly, it sounded like a good question to me!Thanks!Curiouser Ann Curiouser  Dear Curiouser,What a great inquisitive mind! Maybe you’ve got a budding future Florida dentist there!Toothpaste, as it turns out, is relatively simple stuff. There are six basic ‘categories’ of ingredients, and most toothpastes have at least five.
    • Fluoride: Fluoride is a mineral, like potassium or sodium, that naturally strengthens the enamel of your teeth. This makes your teeth more resistant to both the natural acids in your food and to the attacks of cavity-causing bacteria.
    • Abrasives: One of the biggest dangers to your teeth is the tendency of bacteria feeding on the ‘leftovers’ in your mouth to form a thick film called plaque —  which feels like your teeth are wearing fuzzy sweaters. Plaque traps acid and bacteria up against your enamel, but it’s easy to remove if you have a decent abrasive like those found in toothpaste.
    • Foamers: Many toothpastes use some sort of foaming agent like sodium lauryl sulfate. The foaming action helps the toothpaste get into all of the cracks and crevices, and it also helps to ‘trap’ loose food particles in the foam so that you spit them out at the end.
    • Humectants: Simply put, humectants keep your toothpaste…pasty. Without something to hold water in the toothpaste, it would get dry and hard to use.
    • Details: Every toothpaste has a short list of binding agents, flavorings, colorants, and preservatives that don’t meaningfully affect its function, but are pretty important to those of us who have to put this stuff in our mouths!
    • Other Active Ingredients: Depending on what exactly your toothpaste is attempting to accomplish, you might have active ingredients beyond fluoride. Common examples include: triclosan (kills the bacteria that attack your gumline), phyrosphosphate (prevents the formation of tartar), potassium nitrite (numbs just a little so people with sensitive teeth can brush full-strength), and hydrogen peroxide (a mild bleach for whitening purposes).
While the simplest toothpastes on the market are essentially just abrasives held together with humectants and details, there is very little reason to seek out a toothpaste that does less than the standard. The one exception that is if you live in a place where the water is already fluoridated, and you have a child under 6 years of age — strongly consider using a non-fluoridated toothpaste until they are old enough to consistently not swallow any as they brush. 1aYWZeHQAp9q%JSjpeYP

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