You may have heard your eco-loving friend tout the benefits of a baking soda alternative toothpaste, or your Paleo-obsessed pal talk about “dirt” toothpaste. Maybe you’ve even seen a sea salt-based paste at your favorite natural food store, or heard that toothpastes exist with unexpected ingredients like wasabi. It’s starting to sound like you can brush your teeth with just about anything these days. But do these alt-oral care products actually clean your teeth and prevent cavities?
We asked dentists to weigh in on the effectiveness of some of the more common ingredients you’ll find in these products. Here’s what they had to say.
It seems counterintuitive that something that is synonymous with “black” can help whiten your teeth, but charcoal, found in Curapox Black is White Toothpaste and others, might. The abrasiveness of charcoal helps remove stains, William Graves, D.M.D, of Amarillo Oral & Maxillofacial in Amarillo, Texas, tells SELF. But that’s not all. Cavities occur when certain bacteria in the mouth overgrow and utilize sugar from our food to create acid. This acid is what causes tooth decay over time. “Charcoal helps raise the pH in your mouth,” Graves says, which helps neutralize these acids. Who shouldn’t use charcoal-based toothpaste? Steer clear of them if you have crowns or veneers, because it can stain them. “The small particles of charcoal can work their way into porcelain,” Graves cautions.
It’s also important to note that we’re talking about toothpastes made with charcoal, not brushing with straight charcoal. That’s going to be way too abrasive, and most dentists caution against scrubbing your teeth with something that gritty, especially when there’s no proof it’s a better option than regular toothpaste. Layliev assures that for a commercially made paste like Curapox, the abrasivity is usually generally low, so there’s not really any danger there.
2. Baking soda
The trusty home and beauty staple serves as the base of many a DIY and alternative toothpastes, but while its abrasiveness will clean your teeth, it’s not without its downsides. “Although baking soda does help to remove plaque, it doesn’t kill any bacteria, and that can actually increase cavity formation in your teeth,” Emanuel Layliev, D.D.S, director of New York Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, tells SELF. In addition, those same abrasive properties that help clean your teeth can also damage the enamel, he says, so it’s best to use baking soda and baking soda-heavy products only occasionally.
3. Bentonite clay
Why would anyone brush their teeth with dirt, of all things? As fans of The Dirt Super Natural Toothbrushing Powder will tell you, the brand is all-natural, GMO-free, and Paleo-approved. Is that enough to make it worth $30 for a six-month supply? “The real benefit of bentonite clay is that it is abrasive enough to remove the plaque but not so much so that it will do damage to your enamel,” Graves says. Like charcoal, it may also help raise the pH of your mouth, making it more challenging for bacteria to grow.
4. Kaolin clay
Also called China clay, you’ll find this ingredient in face masks, and now, tons of alternative toothpastes, including Layliev’s favorite brand, Dentisse. Kaolin is full of minerals, which could hypothetically bolster or “remineralize” the natural mineral content of the teeth. There aren’t any good studies to back up this claim, though. The clay is also really smooth and gentle on the teeth, and has similar benefits to bentonite clay in terms of pH.
Cinnamon is known to be anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory and it’s possible your grandmother used it as a toothache remedy. It’s used in many mainstream toothpastes, but is also an ingredient in many DIY toothpastes. If you use cinnamon in too strong a concentration or too frequently, you may wind up with red and white patches in your mouth that burn. “I’ll occasionally see a patient with a condition called cinnamon-induced oral mucosal contact reaction,” explains Graves. If this happens to you, you’ll need to stop using cinnamon-flavored products, including toothpastes and gum.
6. Coconut oil
If you’re a fan of oil pulling or a lover of Greensations Coconut Oil Toothpaste, there’s good news and bad news for you. Coconut oil has been shown to help prevent and treat oral candida infections (better known as thrush). However, whether it will reduce cavity-causing bacteria in your mouth is still in question, Graves says. (Some small studies suggest its antibacterial ability helps reduce plaque and gingivitis, but more research is needed for a solid conclusion.)
7. Sea salts
Sodium is another one of those ingredients that defies logic. Isn’t too much salt a bad thing? Not when it comes to brushing your teeth. “Sea salts can temporarily raise the pH in your mouth, which makes it more difficult for bacteria to thrive,” Graves says. That’s why it’s also a top ingredient in homemade toothpastes. You’ll also find it in Weleda’s Salt Toothpaste.
Perhaps the wackiest idea of all is to brush your teeth with wasabi, the sinus-clearing, tonsil-burning sushi condiment. Well, isothiocyanates, the same substances responsible for that hot taste,have been shown to inhibit the growth of cavity forming bacteria, Graves says. Look for it in the new Lush Ultrablast Tooth Powder.
The way you get the toothpaste or powder on your brush is important, too.
Some of the tooth powders, including Lush’s and The Dirt, come in jars or tubs that you dip your brush into. While we’re a fan of anything that reduces landfill waste (traditional toothpaste tubes aren’t recycled in most areas), it’s not very sanitary to dip your toothbrush directly into the container, particularly if you’re sharing with your SO or roommate. “Your saliva does contain simple sugars that bacteria need to grow and multiply,” Graves says. “Though many of these products contain anti-microbial ingredients, it’s hard for me to believe that they wouldn’t grow bacteria” if you’re constantly adding sugary saliva to the mix. A better idea is to dip a clean teaspoon into the powder and apply that to your toothbrush.
While many of these ingredients seem to offer oral care benefits, none of these products have been approved by the American Dental Association. The ADA has a formal approval process, and human clinical studies need to be available to back up claims and prove the product is safe and effective. If an alt toothpaste doesn’t have that seal, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It does mean that the research behind the ingredients is probably a bit lacking. When it comes down to it, though, Graves says, “The physical act of brushing your teeth is important for removing plaque, regardless of your choice of toothpaste.”