What Are the Harmful Ingredients in Toothpaste?

Adding Toothpaste On Brush
Toothpaste being squeezed onto a toothbrush. (Image: AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images)

Most consumers purchase toothpaste and other personal hygiene products without even bothering to read the list of ingredients, blindly trusting manufacturers to have the customer’s best interests at heart. It can be a costly mistake. Toothpaste contains many potentially harmful ingredients, including some that can lead to serious long-term health problems.

Sodium Fluoride

Dentists have trumpeted the virtues of fluoride for years, claiming it’s the best defense against tooth decay. Fluoride supposedly builds strong, healthy teeth. In reality, sodium fluoride, a by-product of aluminum manufacturing, can also be found in rat poisons and industrial pesticides. According to the Akron Regional Poison Center, ingesting 1/10 of an ounce of fluoride can kill a 100-lb. adult. Ingesting even a small amount of sodium fluoride may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Yet despite its dangers, sodium fluoride continues to be a staple in all leading brand’s of toothpaste.

Triclosan

Found most often in anti-bacterial products, triclosan supplements many toothpaste brands. Unfortunately, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies triclosan as a pesticide, stating it poses a risk to both human health and the environment. Scientists categorize triclosan as a chlorophenol, which is a type of chemical suspected of causing cancer in humans.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Added as a detergent and cleansing agent, sodium laurel sulfate and its cousin sodium laureth sulfate pose a wide range of potential health risks. On its own, sodium laurel sulfate can damage eyes, irritate skin and lead to labored breathing. According to the American College of Toxicology, sodium laurel sulfate may stay within the body for up to five days, accumulating in the heart, liver, lungs and brain. When combined with certain other chemicals, sodium laurel sulfate transforms into nitrosamines, a class of powerful carcinogens that cause the body to absorb harmful nitrates.

Propylene Glycol

An active component in antifreeze, propylene glycol acts as a wetting agent and surfactant in toothpaste. The Material Safety Data Sheets for propylene glycol warn that the chemical can be rapidly absorbed through the skin, with prolonged contact leading to brain, liver and kidney abnormalities. The EPA won’t allow its workers to handle propylene glycol without wearing rubber gloves, yet it doesn’t stop the chemical from being used in common health care products.

DEA

Consumers find diethanolamine, or DEA, in products that foam, including toothpaste. DEA disrupts hormones and forms cancer-causing nitrates. According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, professor of environmental health at University of Illinois, repeated skin exposure to DEA can lead to increased risk of liver and kidney cancers.

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