Toothpaste is one of those everyday essentials, and one that goes in our mouths, so I’m never surprised when a client or reader asks for help finding the best non-toxic toothpaste. Finding a truly safe toothpaste goes far beyond looking for a “fluoride-free” label. (And even the fluoride thing can be controversial—some of you may want it in toothpaste!).
Many toothpastes—both natural and conventional, for adults and kids–include a lot of ingredients, many of which are sneaky or bad. I guess that’s what happens when we expect a product to do a lot of things, like look appetizing, taste good, feel sudsy in our mouth, whiten our teeth, prevent cavities, and leave us with a “fresh” feeling.
I feel like a total Debbie Downer for saying this, but there are only a few toothpaste products that I feel confident calling Good Stuff, and I have a long list of Sneaky products. Spoiler alert: Tom’s of Maine is not Good Stuff, and it’s a product I was using for years before researching for this guide!
Read on to learn what’s unsavory about most toothpaste, and how to find the best non-toxic, natural toothpaste for adults, kids, and babies.
Why Safe Toothpaste Matters
Choosing a non-toxic toothpaste is important for both adults and kids. Because we use toothpaste multiples times a day, we have frequent exposure to the ingredients.
Also, toothpaste ingredients can be absorbed into the body through the lining of our mouths. And little kids, of course, end up swallowing more toothpaste than they spit out. (Can you blame them? Kids’ toothpastes come in flavors like bubble gum and strawberry!)
What About Fluoride?
Fluoride is supposed to prevent tooth decay and cavities and help us have strong bones. But for decades, there’s been a debate about whether fluoride is healthy and effective as an additive to drinking water and toothpaste.
I’m definitely not a fan of fluoride in drinking water. The Harvard School of Public Health reported that fluoride “adversely affect[s] cognitive development in children,” causing as much as a 7-point lower IQ.
There is also persistent concern that fluoride can cause reproductive damage in high enough doses. For these and other reasons, I recommend filtering fluoride out of drinking water and probably avoiding fluoride-containing toothpaste, although if you have a cavity-prone child, talk to your dentist.
If you’re worried that skipping fluoride means inviting a mouth of rotten teeth, there is evidence that vitamin D may help prevent cavities. We use the Carlson drops as I have found that to have the cleanest ingredients.
What’s Wrong with Conventional Toothpastes?
Fluoride aside, most toothpastes are chock full of ingredients I wouldn’t want to put on my body, let alone in my mouth. I’m particularly disappointed to see how many kids’ toothpastes contain bad stuff, given how much kids tend to swallow. Even many “safe to swallow” toddler toothpastes make me cringe.
Colgate’s supposedly kid-friendly toothpastes contain concerning ingredients like fluoride, propylene glycol (linked to cancer and reproductive damage), artificial colors (linked to ADHD), and PEG-12 (can be contaminated with toxic 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide). See the Bad Stuff for some of the worst kids’ toothpaste out there.
Here’s a run-down of the ingredients I’m worried about in conventional toothpastes:
• Surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are used to make products foam. SLS can irritate the skin or lining of the mouth, and it’s cousin SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) is even worse, as it is often contaminated with carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane. I don’t worry about SLS as much in soaps or shampoos, which we wash off, but because toothpaste goes in our mouths where it can be absorbed and swallowed, SLS and similar surfactants should be avoided in toothpaste.
• Triclosan, the antibacterial agent that forms carcinogenic chloroform when it comes in contact with water that contains trace amounts of chlorine, is found in lots of toothpastes for kids and adults and should be avoided.
• Artificial preservatives such as parabens are everywhere, including in toothpastes. Parabens mimic estrogen and are implicated in breast cancer. No causal relationship has been proven, but because we’re exposed to parabens from many cosmetic sources, I recommend avoiding them wherever you can.
• Artificial colors, some of which are linked to ADHD, are used in many conventional toothpastes, especially kids’ gel formulas. White toothpastes usually get their squeaky clean look from coloring agents such as titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide can be carcinogenic in nano-particle form. Nano-particles of titanium dioxide could be absorbed through the lining of the mouth, especially if there are little abrasions.
• Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin are often used to sweeten toothpaste. Saccharin has neurotoxic effects in some people who consume it in low-calorie or sugar-free foods. It’s a bad idea for kids’ toothpastes, given the potential for swallowing.
• Propylene glycol is linked to cancer, reproductive damage, and extreme skin irritation, and is often used in toothpastes to give them a smooth texture.
What’s Wrong with Natural Toothpastes?
I definitely recommend choosing fluoride-free toothpaste, but as I mentioned, toothpaste has to be more than fluoride-free in order to be safe. Below is a list of the toothpaste brands that are considered Good Stuff.
Unfortunately, many “natural” toothpaste contain concerning ingredients similar to what’s found in conventional toothpastes, such as:
• Surfactants: Coconut-derived substitutes for sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are popular ingredients in many “SLS-free” toothpastes. I’m concerned about SLS alternatives in toothpaste because of the delicate and absorbent lining of the mouth. There’s little or no data available on the safety of these ingredients, so at this point I’m erring on the side of avoiding them in toothpaste (although I’m okay with them in shampoo.) Examples of these kinds of surfactants are sodium coco-sulfate, sodium cocoyl glutamate, potassium cocoate, and sodium methyl cocoyl taurate.
• Preservatives: Paraben-free toothpastes often substitute “food-grade preservatives” that still worry me. Sodium benzoate is suspected to cause damage to mitochondrial DNA, and some researchers see a link with cancer, ADD, and other scary stuff. More research (especially long-term studies) is needed, but in the meantime, I recommend skipping toothpastes with this preservative. Potassium sorbate has raised concerns due to mild allergic reactions in some users. I consider it to be of less concern than sodium benzoate, but I’m not a fan of it in products that can be ingested, like toothpaste. Sorbic acid is also known to irritate skin.
• Carrageenan, derived from seaweed, is a common thickening agent in toothpaste. Animal studies suggest that it leads to intestinal inflammation and colon tumors. It’s probably fine in toothpaste for adults, but I’d avoid it in products used by swallowing-prone kids. (If you start reading food labels of health-food snack foods, you’ll see carrageenan everywhere, btw.)
There are also a few controversial ingredients that I’m not so worried about in natural toothpastes:
• Glycerin: There’s a small but heated debate about whether glycerin, a very common ingredient in both conventional and natural toothpastes, is healthy for teeth. Some people claim that glycerin in toothpaste coats the teeth, blocking their ability to re-mineralize (or repair themselves with minerals from our saliva). It’s true that re-mineralization is crucial to the health of our teeth. It’s not clear, however, that glycerin-based toothpastes seriously interfere with this process. Honestly, I’m on the fence about this, so I’m giving the Okay Stuff label to otherwise safe toothpastes that are glycerin-based. (See Good Stuff for glycerin-free toothpastes).
• Clays are a potentially problematic ingredient in natural toothpaste because they can contain trace amounts of lead. After lots of research and digging into the independent testing of the bentonite clay used in Earthpaste, I’m convinced that it’s safe. The amount of lead in clay is much less than the naturally occurring amounts found in food like spinach or sweet potatoes. Also, the lead in clay doesn’t seem to be bio-available (meaning your body won’t absorb it even when it is present). Even better, there is compelling evidence that bentonite clay might actually RID the body of lead. You should always do your own research, but this is where ours has lead me, and I feel confident calling Earthpaste Good Stuff; in fact, you buy Earthpaste online from us.
• Sugar alcohols like xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol are used in toothpastes for sweetness and anti-cavity benefits. When consumed in high enough amounts (usually as sugar replacements in food and beverages), they can cause digestive upset in some people. I don’t think they’re harmful in the small amounts found in toothpaste, and I like that xylitol and erythritol have anti-cavity benefits. If you’re concerned about sugar alcohols, Earthpaste’s spearmint flavor is xylitol free, as are Tooth Soap’s products.
• Essential oils are used in some natural toothpastes in place of artificial or natural flavors, and sometimes for added anti-cavity/pro-mouth benefits. Some people don’t like the idea of using essential oils in ingestible products, and some people have sensitivities to specific oils. I think that high-quality essential oils like the ones in the Good Stuff are safe in the amounts found in toothpaste, but if you want to avoid them, check out UGLY by nature, Poofy Organic’s toddler tooth gel, Jack n’Jill’s toothpastes, and some of the Tooth Soap products (all Good or Okay Stuff).
What Is the Safest Toothpaste for My Baby?
Many kids’ toothpastes are officially for ages two and up. So what about younger toddlers and babies? Teaching little ones to brush and getting them used to the tickling sensation of bristles is definitely important, but all you really need to use is water plus a soft-bristled brush or finger toothbrush beginning with their earliest teeth. You can hold off on toothpaste until they’re toddlers, or later. (Toothpaste isn’t actually essential to oral health—the brushing action of the toothbrush is. Flossing and a healthy diet are crucial, too, of course.)
If you feel compelled to use more than water (and/or kid’s your doc or dentist says you need to), try some of the Good Stuff listed below, or a little bit of coconut oil.
Earthpaste is safe and it is what we all use in our home. It is a clay-based toothpaste with only four or five ingredients: purified water, food-grade bentonite clay, sea salt, essential oils, and xylitol. For those of you concerned about xylitol, the spearmint flavor is xylitol-free. It’s safe for all ages and the lemon flavor is particularly poplar with kids.
Miessence toothpastes are made with aloe juice, sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda), xanthan gum, essential oils, sea salt, and stevia extract. They’re free of all the Bad Stuff as well as potentially concerning ingredients like glycerin and sugar alcohols. The company says that it’s suitable for children and adults. They don’t recommend that it be swallowed, though no harm will come if it happens.
Poofy Organics toothpastes are unique because they’re entirely organic. Poofy’s adult toothpaste and tooth powder are for ages five and up. (The tooth powder is also clay free in case you’re not as comfortable as I am with responsibly sourced clay. Poofy gets theirs from Living Clay because they test it thoroughly.) Poofy also makes an organic baby/toddler toothpaste that I like, but I’m listing it under Okay Stuff because it contains glycerin.
Tooth Soap makes a line of unique tooth-cleaning products that aren’t toothpaste per se. Tooth Soap comes in gel, whip, liquid and “shred” forms. I like that their formula is very simple and therefore skips almost all of the ingredients that are obviously or subtly concerning. They use a saponified extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, water, essential oils and/or natural flavors as their base. I haven’t used any of these products, but based on the good ingredients and their cult following, I’d say they’re worth trying.
Okay Stuff is Good Stuff except for: 1) glycerin, which I’m personally not concerned about in toothpaste, but some people really worry that it blocks teeth from re-mineralizing; and/or 2) limonene, a citrus-derived ingredient that I’m on the fence about. Limonene is found in various cosmetics and detergents, many of which are natural and organic. EWG considers limonene a definite skin and respiratory irritant, with potential carcinogenic properties. But there are different forms of limonene, and some research suggests that it has antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. Confusing? Yes. Deadly in toothpaste? Probably not, especially if you’re not guzzling it by the tube.
Poofy Organics Cheery Cherry Toddler Toothpaste is unique because it’s organic. It can be used as soon as baby’s first teeth emerge. I like that it only has a handful of organic ingredients: arrowroot powder, glycerin, erythritol (a sugar alcohol with properties similar to xylitol), bentonite clay, and cherry flavor (organic vegetable oil plus natural flavors). If you’re concerned about using essential oils in an ingestible product, this is a good option.
Jack N’ Jill Natural Toothpaste is a xylitol- and glycerin-based toothpaste for babies and toddlers (six months and up). Even picky kids are likely to find a favorite among one of their five different fruit flavors. Xylitol, which has anti-cavity benefits, is the primary ingredient. This is a good pick if you’re particularly nervous about skipping fluoride in your kid’s toothpaste. This is also a good option if you’re concerned about using essential oils in an ingestible product.
UGLY by nature makes clay-based toothpastes with carefully sourced, simple ingredients that are all food grade and/or organic: calcium bentonite clay, coconut oil, diatomaceous earth, aloe vera leaf juice, purified water, d-limonene, coconut activated charcoal, xylitol, hydrogen peroxide, and organic food flavors. If you’re concerned about using essential oils in an ingestible product, this is a good option. UGLY toothpastes are used by kids, but the company doesn’t state an official safe age for their toothpaste—they recommend consulting with your kid’s doc or dentist. The UGLY ingredient that gives me pause is d-limonene, but if you use the product and don’t see a reaction, you’re probably in the clear.
Weleda Children’s Tooth Gel is a glycerin-based formula. It gets an EWG score of 2, but their calculation doesn’t include limonene. The ingredients I’m not crazy about include the limonene and the “flavor.” The flavor is derived from essential oils, so skip this product if you’re worried about oral ingestion of essential oils. I do like that this formula is relatively easy to find at brick-and-mortar stores and is pretty simple, with only 9 ingredients (including the limonene, which is part of the oils used in the flavoring).
The Bad Stuff
The worst of the bad—thanks to the fact that they’re kids’ toothpastes that are supposedly “safe to swallow”—are Orajel’s toddler toothpastes. Even the ingredients in their fluoride-free toothpastes are awful. The Orajel Elmo Fluoride-Free Training Toothpaste, for example, contains scary stuff like propylene glycol, methylparaben and propylparaben, saccharin, potassium sorbate, and unspecified “flavor.” If Orajel’s claim that they’re the “#1 pediatrician recommended brand for infants and toddlers” is true, then I’m terrified.
Otherwise, pick any mainstream toothpaste brand, and you’ll find at least a handful of concerning ingredients on the label. For example, Crest uses parabens and other concerning preservatives, cocamidopropyl betaine, artificial colors, PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-12, and a bunch of other stuff you don’t want in your mouth. Colgate Total contains the usual suspects, not the least of which is triclosan.
Bottom line: Don’t shop for your toothpaste at the drug store!
The Sneaky Stuff
Most of Tom’s of Maine toothpastes have sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)—even the children’s formula. Tom’s admirably defends their use of SLS, but because there are SLS-free toothpastes available, I say skip it—especially for kids.
Tate’s The Natural Miracle Toothpaste (which I used to use and love!), for adults, has several concerning ingredients, including PEG-6 (can be contaminated with yucky stuff like1,4-dioxane), saccharin (can have neurotoxic effects in some people), and clove stem (natural, but a possible immune system toxicant).
Because coconut-derived substitutes for sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) may carry the same risks as SLS, I consider them to be sneaky ingredients in toothpaste. Xyliwhite products have sodium coco-sulfate, some Jason adult toothpastes have sodium cocoyl glutamate, Dr. Bronner’s has potassium cocoate, and Spry’s adult toothpastes have sodium methyl cocoyl taurate. Spry’s kid formula uses grapefruit seed extract, which sounds nice, but can be contaminated with scary stuff like triclosan. Even The Honest Company’s toothpastes—both the adult and kid formulas—have sodium lauroyl sarcosinate. Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate is also used in Nature’s Gate Natural Toothpaste for Kids.
Carrageenan is a potentially problematic ingredient in kids’ toothpastes, thanks to the potential for swallowing. You’ll find carrageenan in The Honest Company’s Strawberry Blast, Kiss My Face Berry Smart Obsessively Kids Toothpaste, Xyliwhite Orange Splash Toothpaste Gel for Kids, and Tom’s of Maine fluoride-free toothpastes for kids and toddlers.
Paraben alternatives in “natural” toothpastes concern me, and because there are better options available, I say skip these. You’ll find preservatives like sodium benzoate, postassium sorbate, and sorbic acid in toothpaste from the following brands: Spiffies, Spry, Jason, Babyganics, Xyliwhite, and Kiss My Face.
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