Toothpaste 101

Here'™s what you should know when it comes to choosing the right toothpaste for you.

03 March 2013
by Paige Dorkin


Most toothpastes use the same basic formula. Typically, this includes fluoride, which protects your teeth from decay. There’s also powdered calcium, which strengthens your teeth and removes stains. On top of these are flavourants and foaming agents to make brushing more effective and pleasant. Dental experts agree that toothpastes that follow this basic recipe should keep your teeth healthy. So much comes down to personal preference.


For the removal of stubborn stains, these products tend to contain abrasive ingredients that gently polish your teeth. On the whole, they’re more about stain removal than bleaching agents. Excessive use over long periods of time can damage enamel, so be sure to follow the instructions or talk to your dentist about whether these are appropriate for you.

Over-the-counter bleaching

Are at-home whitening strips and kits safe? Effective? It depends. No bleach will work on a stain from major deposits caused by not brushing. And if you have decay or gum disease, bleaching can cause pain. It’s always best to consult your dentist about these products first. Follow instructions to the letter, leaving gels and strips on for longer than indicated is not going to make them more effective.


When enamel on the outside of the tooth, or cementum, the tissue between the tooth and the gum, wears away, this exposes small tubes that connect nerves inside the tooth to triggers outside – especially cold or hot foods. Toothpastes with formulae for sensitive teeth contain ingredients that seal off these small tubes. Although they’re safe to use long-term, it is important to determine the source of the sensitivity, so if this persists, visit your dentist.


Fluorosis, which occurs when too much fluoride is absorbed from swallowing toothpaste, is a fairly common problem in young children. It causes white streaks or specks in the tooth enamel. Which is why dental experts recommend brushing teeth without toothpaste until the age of 18 months. After that, until the age of six, a low-fluoride formula (about 500ppm) is best. Encourage your kids to use only a pea-sized amount of toothpaste and to spit it out – not swallow. In South Africa, drinking water is fluoridated, so children do get small doses in this way. Regular dental check-ups help determine if they’re getting too much or too little.


Some herbal toothpastes are free of the foaming agent sodium lauryl sulphate, to which a small percentage of people are allergic. But they’re also often free of fluoride. Although fluoride has been the subject of controversy since the 1940s, mainly due to concerns about the health risks of excessive levels in drinking water, the South African Dental Association is clear about this: “Dental cavities can be prevented by a low level of fluoride constantly maintained in the oral cavity.” So think twice about choosing a toothpaste without fluoride. There are “herbal” toothpastes that simply contain “natural” ingredients, such as propolis (a honey by-product with antibacterial properties), but with fluoride, too.