Toothpaste: It’s Come a Long Way Since Burnt Eggshells

Toothpaste has been a part of our everyday routines for hundreds of years. The recommendation of brushing twice a day everyday is common knowledge from about the age of 2. Once we reach adulthood, grabbing toothpaste and brushing our teeth is truly second nature. But just what is in that little tube we call toothpaste? What makes toothpaste freshen our breath and clean our teeth?

There are actually a handful of essential ingredients that make up toothpaste. And some of them date back thousands and thousands of years.


From the time of the Egyptians, people have been cleaning their teeth with abrasive material. Ancient Egyptians actually used a mixture of burnt eggshells, pumice and ox-hoof ashes. Probably not very tasty, but it worked. Fast forward a few thousand years and we also use abrasives, they are just not as potent. The abrasives commonly found in toothpastes approved by the American Dental Association include hydrated silica, hydrated alumina, calcium carbonate and dicalcium phosphates. Combined together they adequately clean and polish teeth.


Detergents in toothpaste are what create that foaming action we all know so well. These detergents are also known as “surfactants” because they act as a surface active agent, cleaning and breaking down non-soluble particles on the teeth. The most common detergent/surfactant in toothpaste is sodium lauryl sulfate. This is also the same detergent that’s in other foaming beauty products, like shampoo. This ingredient can be derived from coconut or palm kernel oil.

More recent news concerning detergents are rumors that sodium lauryl sulfate is dangerous. This is a far-fetched claim and unsupported by scientific research. This detergent has actually been used safely in toothpaste for more than 50 years. On the other hand, one credible concern, according to the Journal of the American Dental Association, is an increase in oral irritation in people prone to canker sores. These individuals should be aware that it is possible to buy toothpaste without sodium lauryl sulfate.

All you need to know about toothpaste


Fluoride is arguably the most important component of toothpaste since its development in 1914. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that fluoride was fully developed to react with tooth enamel. Fluoride is an extremely valuable ingredient to toothpaste as it strengthens enamel and makes teeth more resistant to decay. Fluoride also helps to reverse the damage caused by exposure to harmful acid from oral bacteria. Your teeth can actually absorb the fluoride, which aids in preventing damage to teeth. The fluoride in toothpaste is also known as sodium fluoride.

Humectant Systems

Humectant systems refers to a combination of ingredients that retain moisture in the toothpaste (humectants) and keep all the ingredients from separating (binding agents). If toothpaste didn’t have these components, it would dry out or require stirring before use just like paint. Here are some common components of humectant systems:

  • Humectants: glycerol, propylene glycol and sorbitol.
  • Binders: Carrageenan (seaweed gum), gum arabic (sap from the Acacia tree), sodium carboxymethylcellulose and magnesium aluminum silicate (both synthetics).
  • Preservatives for non-fluoride toothpastes: sodium benzoate, methyl paraben, ethyl paraben (gentle antimicrobial agents used as preservatives in foods, beverages and cosmetics).


Toothpaste needs flavoring added – otherwise it would taste pretty bad with all the ingredients hard at work. You will always find various natural and artificial flavorings and sweeteners such as saccharin in toothpaste. The humectant sorbitol also adds a sweet taste. The ADA will not put its seal on toothpastes that contain sugar or any other ingredient that promotes tooth decay.

Specific to some toothpastes:

Whitening toothpaste

The effectiveness of whitening toothpastes on your teeth largely depends on the reason they aren’t white in the first place. Whitening toothpastes chemically or mechanically help to remove “extrinsic” stain — stain on the tooth surface. There is no evidence that they can whiten teeth that have “intrinsic” stain — internal discoloration — because they do not actually break down pigment or remove color from the teeth as bleaching agents can do.

The whitening agents that are used in toothpastes are abrasives that help rub off stains (from coffee, tea or red wine for example), or enzymes that break down the proteins in stains (such as tanins present in wine and many fruit juices and food products). If you believe your teeth are not as white as they should be, your dentist can advise you on the cause of your less-than-white teeth and the best option to achieve the results you want.

Prevention of tartar and gum inflammation

Some toothpastes proclaim an ability to control tartar and protect gum tissue. If the toothpaste bears the Seal of Acceptance from the American Dental Association these claims have been proven true in clinical trials. For example, pyrophosphates, have been shown to prevent tartar – the hardened (calcified) plaque – from forming on teeth. But it’s important to remember that pyrophosphates, cannot remove existing tartar. That can only be accomplished with a professional cleaning.

Several toothpastes have been shown to prevent plaque formation and the development of gingivitis (gum disease) through the addition of different antibacterial agents. The idea is to reduce oral bacteria before they become incorporated into the plaque on your teeth and inflame your gum tissue, resulting in gingivitis. More recently, two other ingredients, triclosan, used for years in antibacterial soaps, and cetyl pyridinium chloride, an antibacterial agent used in mouthwashes, have been used in toothpaste to help control gingivitis.

Keeping your smile healthy

Ultimately, the best advice for you as a consumer is to select products that bear the Seal of Acceptance from the American Dental Association.

The Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Dental Association approves all health claims or advertised benefits of these products. So,these toothpastes must meet high standards and fulfill the benefits listed on the package. If you have any questions about specific toothpastes for your oral healthcare, your dentist is a good source of information on what would be best for you.

About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on
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If it's been more than 6 months since your last teeth cleaning, give us a call today to schedule your check-up.

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