Essential Oils – The Potentially Unhealthy Ingredient in your “Healthy” Toothpaste

Think swapping toxic chemicals for an essential oils toothpaste is a safe bet? Think again! Your healthy and natural toothpaste may be just as harmful.

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Hi, I’m Dr. B, practicing functional dentist for 35 years. I graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, CA in 1987 and am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL), American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH), and Dental Board of California. I'm on a mission to empower people everywhere with the same evidence-based, easy-to-understand dental health advice that my patients get. Learn more about Dr. B

Without a doubt, natural alternatives to mainstream commercial toothpastes are usually a better choice for your oral health. However an all natural solution is not always what it seems.

Our mouths are similar to our guts in that they house a living, breathing microbiome of bacteria. Our oral microbiomes contain both good and bad bacteria. The key to a healthy mouth, teeth, and fresh breath is finding the best balance of these bacteria. This is not accomplished by continuously and indiscriminately killing bacteria in your mouth with mouthwashes and toothpastes.

Contrary to what most of us have been told for the majority of our lives, it isn’t a good idea to blast the bacteria in your mouth with products such as Listerine mouthwash, which claims to ‘kill 99% of germs.’ When you use products that kill bad bacteria, those same products can also harm good bacteria.

Being the health-conscious person you are, you’d probably prefer to see ‘peppermint oil’ on a tube of toothpaste over ‘sulfuric acid monododecyl ester sodium salts.’ While I’m going to have to agree with you on that one, this does NOT mean the safer sounding ingredient isn’t powerful and capable of leaving a lasting negative impact on your health.

In fact, some essential oils have been found to be as powerful as chlorhexidine – the flagship ingredient in many prescription mouthwashes – well-known for its ability to crush your oral microbiome.

Additionally, high amounts of essential oils can damage gum tissues – similar to chlorhexidine. Studies have found mouth rinses with some essential oils to be damaging to healthy gums and in some cases, they can prevent gums from functioning normally.

Essential oils can match the effectiveness of manmade chemicals such as Chlorhexidine.

We tend to think because an ingredient comes from a natural source (and we can pronounce their names!) they are safer than the manmade, mystery ingredients inside so many of our products. But essential oils have been used for hundreds of years for their powerfully antibacterial properties.

Essential oils have long been used in cleaning products, to disinfect wounds, and to treat infections precisely due to their effectiveness in killing microbes. Some believe essential oils may be the next ‘antibiotics’ as many bacterial strains have become more and more antibiotic resistant.

So, why then would we think it’s a good idea to add essential oils to our toothpastes?

I’ve seen many an article explain the importance of the oral microbiome and beneficial bacteria, only to immediately recommend using toothpastes containing powerfully antibacterial essential oils.

Are essential oils beneficial in toothpaste and other oral care products? Or have we overlooked the strength of this important natural ingredient?

Essential oils are highly concentrated

There’s a reason that tiny bottle is so expensive.

Essential oils are highly concentrated derivatives of their respective plant. Here’s how much plant life you need to make a standard 15 ml bottle of your favorite essential oil:

  • 315 pounds of rose petals
  • 30 pounds of lavender flowers
  • 75 lemons
  • 1 pound of peppermint plant

Many essential oils carry serious warnings due to their potency. They should be considered pharmaceutical grade and used with the same care you would use a drug.

I’m not trying to scare you away from essential oils at all here, I love my essential oils. I just want you to be aware that they are powerful and need to be used responsibly. As a general rule of thumb, any time you’re using essential oils they should always be diluted and you usually only need a couple of drops.

Essential oils in the mouth kill beneficial bacteria

The problem with many natural products is there isn’t nearly as much funding for research when compared to pharmaceuticals. Most of the studies on the effects of essential oils on the oral microbiome are examining their ability to kill oral pathogens or how effective they are in comparison to conventional ingredients (such as chlorhexidine).

One study found that tea tree mouth rinses were effective at killing bacteria and volatile sulphur compound, known to cause bad breath. It seems like good news until the same study concluded that tea tree oil was as effective as chlorhexidine.

Remember nasty chlorhexidine? It’s a disinfectant that kills both beneficial and harmful bacteria of the mouth. Tea tree oil has long been used for its antibacterial properties and is probably not great for your oral microbiome.

That being said, many of the conclusions of available studies tend to consider essential oils effective if they kill bacterial or fungal infections.  The better studies, measure the effectiveness of various essential oils in a variety of concentrations and their effect on specific organisms in the mouth.

While we are hearing more about the gut microbiome and the delicate balance needed among the bacteria there – the oral microbiome, inextricably linked to the gut microbiome, is not being discussed.

There are claims that some essential oils are capable of killing only the bad bacteria and leaving the beneficial. However, there is a serious lack of research comparing the effects of essential oils on beneficial and harmful bacteria. What research does exist on the subject, does not support this claim. Essential oils can damage healthy gum tissue and kill microbes indiscriminately.

I do think that in the case of harmful bacterial or fungal overgrowth, such as candidiasis, essential oils could be an effective and safe as a short term option. My concern with essential oils in oral products is daily exposure that could lead to a disrupted microbiome.

Essential oils to avoid during pregnancy

Using essential oils during pregnancy is a topic of contentious debate and in need of more research all around. Due to their therapeutic potency, there are valid concerns for essential oil use during pregnancy. There are a few essential oils that carry warnings from ancient folklore but due to the delicate nature of pregnancy, a better ‘safe than sorry’ attitude has been adopted for many essential oils (peppermint and clary sage are two of these).

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) recommends pregnant women avoid the following essential oils:

  • Aniseed
  • Basil
  • Birch
  • Camphor
  • Mugwort
  • Parsley seed
  • Pennyroyal
  • Sage
  • Tansy
  • Tarragon
  • Thuja
  • Wintergreen
  • Wormwood

I bring up essential oils and pregnancy mostly because toothpastes are a source of essential oils that many pregnant mothers don’t consider and the concerns demonstrate the medicinal power and efficacy of essential oils.

Factors that contribute to essential oil safety

‘Essential oils’ is a blanket term that can be misleading when discussing safety and effectiveness. There are thousands of essential oils available on the market. Additionally, the production of essential oils is not regulated by the FDA and so therefore they vary in purity. With these variables in mind, there are four important considerations when it comes to essential oil safety.

  1. Species of the plant and its therapeutic use – Some oils are great for certain health factors but terrible for others. An example of this is fennel oil is great for improving colic in infants but can cause seizures in people with epilepsy – two dramatically opposing effects of the same oil.
  2. Quality of the essential oil – This should be a given. I urge you to only use high-quality essential oils from trusted sources. When it comes to your natural toothpaste, sticking with a better brand is usually a better bet.
  3. Application method – How you use an essential oil will influence how much you should use. Using essential oils in a diffuser is generally safe and there aren’t as many limits. Once you start applying oils to your skin, your mouth or begin consuming them, the amount you should use significantly decreases. In fact, using essential oils orally (such as in toothpaste) has the lowest recommended dosage when compared to dermal or internal use.
  4. Chemical composition – For many oils, the compounds contained in the oil are what give it its therapeutic properties. Many of the compounds have been isolated and studied while others could use more research.

Should your toothpaste contain essential oils?

It’s important that the sources of your essential oils are always high-quality. When it comes to your toothpaste ingredients, it’s tough to know where their essential oils are coming from. Also, most of the essential oils toothpastes are antibacterial, such as:

  • Peppermint
  • Tea tree
  • Wintergreen
  • Spearmint
  • Clove

But this isn’t always the case.

Some essential oils found in toothpastes are not very antibacterial and totally acceptable, such as Aniseed (anise). Surprisingly Cinnamon oil has the most potential bactericidal properties and is found in many toothpastes.

The biggest concern I have for essential oils in toothpastes is how potentially powerfully destructive the antibacterial properties can be in a toothpaste.

The concern behind essential oils toothpaste is warranted

What’s confusing for consumers is that we don’t know the exact concentration of the essential oil, the therapeutic dose of the essential oil nor how much essential oil is used per tube of toothpaste, but we know that just one drop can pack a major antibacterial punch.

Check your toothpaste ingredients to see where on this list essential oils falls – the lower on the list the better. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule for knowing exactly how much essential oils are in your toothpaste, it can help you when you’re making a decision between two tubes.

I want to add that if you’re using a brand of toothpaste where the worst ingredient is essential oils, you’re doing much better at taking care of your mouth than most of the country. Commercial toothpastes like Crest and Colgate are packed with all sorts of nasty chemicals. I’m constantly telling my patients, “Oral health is about progress, not perfection.”

That being said, the concern behind essential oils in toothpaste is warranted. In an effort to improve your oral microbiome and dental health, you may have chosen and equally damaging product.

Chocolate lover’s DIY toothpaste without essential oils

I’ve seen many dental health success stories in patients who focus on diet and lifestyle over quick fixes. Through focusing on a nutrient dense diet, reducing inflammation, and promoting good oral microbiome health, you’ll have better oral and overall health.

I’ve created a DIY toothpaste with all this information in mind and it has been wildly successful – I’m excited to share it with you!

My Chocolate Lover’s DIY Toothpaste combines all the essential elements for cultivating a healthy oral microbiome and mouth.

I first designed this toothpaste for my family and patients but I was hearing such great feedback, I just had to share it with you. This toothpaste:

  • Promotes remineralization of your teeth
  • Includes cacao which contains compounds that reduce cavities and strengthen enamel
  • Nourishes your beneficial bacteria with probiotics and prebiotics
  • Gives your mouth a neutral pH, which will leave a wonderful aftertaste
  • Plus, it tastes amazing!

I’d love to hear how you like this toothpaste – share a photo of you and your family using it with the hashtag #ChocolatesLoversDIYToothpaste and tag me @askthedentist on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

Dr. Mark Burhenne

Got more questions about essential oils? Ask me a question!

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