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What is the question we most often are asked? It is a toss up between “how can I have a brighter smile?” and “what toothpaste is the best one to use?”  Even to the wisest of dental consumers, picking the “right” toothpaste as you look at the huge number of choices you have at the store can be challenging to say the least.

Many years ago I remember encouraging people to brush their teeth without toothpaste. That helped them see what they were doing far more clearly, and I believed that the real benefit of tooth brushing was from the mechanical cleansing the brush was achieving. While I still believe that is very important, I now also know that toothpastes provide some very significant benefits.

Toothpastes can help prevent cavities, reduce sensitivity, reduce the amount of tarter that forms in many people’s mouths, decrease dry mouths, mask bad breath, remove surface stains from teeth...the list is nearly endless. The marketing claims for some toothpastes almost read like magic: Many claim to whiten teeth. Some claim to disinfect people’s mouths. Again, fighting cavities is almost a given. And it seems that a significant number of them claim to do nearly everything (It sometimes seems that whatever you want, they can do it!) It may help you to understand some of the extravagant claims if you realize that toothpastes were about a $1.9 BILLION market last year. Toothpaste is BIG business!

Unfortunately, some toothpastes are very abrasive (they wear away tooth structure), create sensitivity, and cause (or at least contribute to) mouth sores for some people. Most contain fluoride which I believe is helpful to help reduce cavities, but I know some people object to.

A very brief overview of claims and research might be helpful: Fluoride in toothpastes has been shown in many research studies to help decrease decay rates (cavities). So unless you object to fluoride in general or are buying toothpaste for children under the age of six, you will almost certainly benefit from fluoride being in your paste. Stain removal is also a benefit of pastes and that, based on a great deal of research, is how those pastes can claim to “whiten” teeth. They really don’t cause whitening except by helping remove stain. Unfortunately, stain removal is sometimes done with cleansers and sometimes achieved because of more abrasive particles. Generally the cleansers are great, but the more abrasive a paste is, the more potentially damaging it is to your teeth or exposed root surfaces. There are tables comparing the amount of abrasivity available through the American Dental Association.

Some pastes do reduce tarter formation which is very helpful if you form tarter rapidly. The way it works is to set up a barrier against the accumulation – the dentifrice does not take tarter away once it has formed. However, the medication that reduces the tarter formation causes sensitivity for some people. Many pastes claim that they reduce dental sensitivity, and some are very effective at that. So if you have gum recession and the exposed root surfaces are sensitive to temperature, one of those pastes may help you. In my experience different people are helped by different brands. It is almost impossible, however, to find a paste that is effective in reducing tarter formation AND sensitivity.

While some pastes claim to treat bad breath, they really only mask the symptoms. Brushing your tongue, with or without toothpaste, may be more helpful, and if that doesn’t resolve it, you ought to talk with your dentist about your concerns. There may be other, more serious, issues occurring.

With claims in advertising running wild and every individual having different needs, how do YOU choose? The place I believe you ought to start is with your dentist or dental hygienist. He or she knows you, knows your mouth, and knows the issues that you are dealing with. Those professionals can combine their knowledge of your needs with their knowledge of what’s available for sale and make recommendations that can narrow your selection to a very few specific choices. Today it isn’t as simple as choosing a brand such as Crest or Colgate–most brands have many choices and picking the right one is what will make it work for you. I believe your dental professional has an obligation to you to help you make the right choice.

Once you’ve received professional input, then I encourage you to try the suggested alternatives until you find one that you like. For most, compliance still relates to “the taste” or “the feel” rather than the oral benefits. Not only do you want your toothpaste to provide you with the benefits your mouth needs, but you want it to be a choice that you like to use–having the “correct” tube in your bathroom isn’t helpful if you don’t use it! The choices are many, but it isn’t always easy to find the right choice... nothing is as simple as the commercials might lead you to believe!

This article originally appeared in Dubuque 365ink magazine. It is republished with permission from the publication.