How Toothpaste Packaging Fools Us

Anticavity! Tartar control! Here I’ll translate for you what all those claims on your toothpaste really mean and break down exactly what actually matters to choose a healthy and effective toothpaste.

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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

As you walk down the aisles of the toothpaste section at the grocery store, you see rows upon rows of claims:


“Professional strength whitening!”

“Tartar control!”

“Fresh breath!”

Can a toothpaste really do all of that?

What’s misleading about all this is that toothpaste is only really good at one thing.

Toothpaste is a polishing paste to assist you in removing the film that builds up on your teeth over the course of the day (and night).

That’s it!

It might seem like toothpaste is more than that, especially with all the features added that entice you to buy.

Toothpaste manufacturers have turned toothpaste into this swiss army knife of oral health — it can do everything short of making you a cup of coffee — which in itself should make you suspicious.

With all these claims, you might think that toothpaste is singularly necessary to oral health, when it’s really just an aid to brushing. Here I’ll translate for you what all those claims really mean and, in another post in this series, how to know what really matters when buying toothpaste.

Toothpaste Marketing Translations

how toothpaste packaging fools you


There are two types of whitening toothpastes.

The newer whitening toothpastes whiten your teeth chemically with a hydrogen peroxide-based chemical.These toothpastes contain the right chemical for whitening, but you’re never going to get the results with only two, or even five minutes, of brushing.

Proper whitening requires you to hold the peroxide up against the tooth for several hours or more. You can think of the second type of whitening toothpaste like sandpaper — the increased abrasiveness in whitening toothpaste helps to polish and remove surface staining. This is effective for removing surface staining from coffee, tea, and berries.

Be aware that you are only removing stains, not changing the intrinsic color of your teeth.

I don’t recommend these toothpastes because they remove tooth structure by scraping away dentin and enamel.

Freshens Breath

When you see “Freshens breath” on a tube of toothpaste, this is an overlay that doesn’t solve the root of the problem.

Some toothpastes tout “breath strips” or other “breath freshening” ingredients, which are at best just a powerful minty flavor intended to mask bad breath, or, at worst, a toxic chemical which kills bacteria — something that can actually make bad breath worse. Plus, the effect lasts, at best, a few minutes. Bad breath is not something that a toothpaste can cure, period.

If you have bad breath, we’ve got to look at the root cause. If you have bad breath, it’s usually one of two things — either you’re not flossing and brushing often enough, you’re not scraping your tongue, or there’s something more complicated going on with your body that’s the cause of the bad breath.

If you want to freshen your breath, these toothpastes aren’t the answer, and they could even make bad breath worse if they contain antibacterial agents which upset the healthy bacteria in your mouth and make bad breath even worse.


It’s generally accepted by both sides of the fluoride controversy that topical fluoride application to the teeth is effective and can remineralize teeth.

Here’s where we’re misled: yes, fluoride is added to the toothpaste, but how much? And is it effective when applied to the surface of the tooth during brushing? Remember, fluoride first appeared in the water system – not toothpaste.

The premise that you can have optimal fluoride uptake to the teeth at the same time that you’re brushing teeth is flawed. You have to remove the biofilm from your teeth first by brushing, and then apply fluoride paste for optimal uptake. This will always be a two step process.

In other words, you can’t wash and wax your car at the same time!

You can get a prescription fluoride gel from your dentist that will actually help with remineralization. I recommend (and use myself) MI Paste, every night before I go to bed, and only after my teeth are clean from brushing.

Do toothpastes contain enough fluoride to have an effect and actually strengthen the teeth?

Probably not.

For optimal remineralization of the teeth, you need a concentration of fluoride that’s around 5000 parts per million.

All those fluoride toothpastes you see at the supermarket contain a weaker dosage of fluoride around 1100 parts per million. Toothpaste manufacturers cannot add the more effective dose due to the FDA toxicity requirements for ingestion by children.

Plus, the FDA does not require toothpaste manufacturers to list the actual concentration of fluoride, but some do. This dosage is nearly ineffective, unless you’re marketing a toothpaste.

Tartar Control

“Tartar control” usually means that the manufacturer has added a cocktail of strong chemicals which, in the lab, prevented tartar buildup. Toothpaste manufacturers get this past the FDA because the FDA considers the removal of tartar to be a cosmetic result.

But it’s the tartar below the gumline that causes gum disease! You can’t really get toothpaste beneath your gums and brush, so in this way, it’s quite misleading!

The least harmful and most natural way to control tartar is to prevent plaque from calcifying into calculus — with frequent brushing, flossing, and professional teeth cleanings. There’s no replacing that with a chemical.

If you use a strong chemical to remove scale from your bathtub, you will damage the bathtub finish. The key is to prevent the buildup of scale before it becomes a problem and that means cleaning your bathtub on a regular basis.

What Really Matters in a Toothpaste

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’m a fan of preventing disease with healthy habits instead of having chemicals, pesticides, and antibacterials to keep our mouths clean and healthy.

We’re always looking for a quick fix and marketers and manufacturers know that we instinctually respond to the instant gratification of letting chemicals to do the work for us.Being sold snake oil in order to simplify our lives has become a way of life.

My Recommendation

Choose a natural and safe toothpaste free of chemicals. Don’t get bogged down by all the marketing messages. You now know what the real purpose of toothpaste is.

Choose a toothpaste that tastes good. It’s about encouraging the habit. I look forward to the cinnamon tea tree flavor of my current toothpaste every time I brush, and you should look forward to brushing too!

Dry brush. Don’t feel limited to brushing only when you have toothpaste. I like to keep a toothbrush in my briefcase and in my car with a snap-on sanitizer to keep it deodorized and tasting fresh.

Empower yourself with information. Download my free buyer’s guide for how to choose a toothpaste. It’s a five-pager cheat sheet which you can print out or call up on your phone next time you’re out shopping. I designed it to help cut through the noise so you know what to look out for. Enter your name and email address at the bottom of this post to get it sent straight to your inbox. Yes, it does require you to sign up for my free weekly newsletter, but it’s packed full of my recommendations, tips, guides, and latest research that you can’t find anywhere else. You can unsubscribe at anytime, but if you’re at all familiar with this blog and who I am, I don’t really promote anything, and I don’t plan to try and sell anything to you at all. I’m just here to provide good, unbiased content, and that’s it.

Make your own toothpaste. Here’s a great DIY toothpaste that I like for its safe ingredients. It’s like cooking — you will only get true piece of mind if you make it yourself.

Consider your diet. Certain foods are good for your teeth and other foods promote tooth decay. An alkaline diet of vegetables, nuts, and unprocessed foods that don’t come in packaging reduce acids in the mouth — and acids are what bacteria love.

Check your brushing and flossing technique. Many people are lulled into a false sense of security by brushing and flossing twice a day and are shocked to realize their technique is actually damaging their teeth and gums. Don’t let this be you! So, don’t let toothpaste packaging mess with your mind! You now know what all those claims really mean.

Mark Burhenne DDS