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What is tooth soap?

What's that in your mouth: Tooth paste or tooth soap? Do you know the difference?
What's that in your mouth: Tooth paste or tooth soap? Do you know the difference?
Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock

An ad in Baton Rouge's Daily Gazette & Comet proclaims that Thompson's Tooth Soap "will prevent your teeth from decaying, effectually remove[s] all tartar, and gives a brilliant white, smooth polish to the teeth" [source: Baton Rouge Daily Gazette & Comet]. That ad dates back to February 1860, but it's not far off from something you'd expect to see today. Except today, that ad would likely be for toothpaste, not tooth soap.

Toothpaste has become big business. In developed countries, 97 percent of people use at least one kind of toothpaste. One market research company estimates that global sales will reach $12.6 billion by 2015 [source: GIA].

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What's in this highly marketable product? Here are the usual ingredients:

  • Fluoride
  • Abrasives
  • Humectants
  • Disinfectants
  • Detergents
  • Thickeners
  • Preservatives
  • Flavoring agents
  • Coloring agents
  • pH buffers
  • Binders
  • Opacifiers

Only a few of those additives are necessary for cleaning your teeth. The rest simply have a psychological benefit. For instance, an ingredient like xanthan gum makes toothpaste nice and thick, which has a satisfying texture. And sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) creates a mouth full of foam that we've been taught signals cleanliness.

Sodium lauryl sulfate also produces the lather in shampoo. And, just like with toothpaste, it doesn't do anything else but whip up those bubbles. It certainly doesn't give you a more thorough cleaning.

SLS presents an interesting case because it also makes the hit list of several consumer protection groups who maintain it may be dangerous to our health, despite the Food and Drug Administration's assurance that it's safe. The same goes for some coloring agents and preservatives. Some even argue strenuously against fluoride.

There isn't solid scientific evidence to back up these claims, but these accusations have led some consumers away from the drugstore's aisles and into their own pantries to concoct home remedies for their health. Others have joined them out of a desire to return to a simpler life, or just to save money. Whatever the reason, they've brought us right back to 1860 -- and tooth soap.

So, what are your options?

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Tooth soap is very simple. You can easily make it yourself at home, and recipes abound on the Internet. All include glycerin, baking soda and water; some also suggest hydrogen peroxide, salt, and flavoring such as orange zest or cinnamon oil -- since soap, after all, doesn't taste that great. One popular store-bought brand of tooth soap is made with saponified extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, water and essential oils. (saponification is the chemical process by which an oil or fat becomes soap.)

Soap cleans because one part of its structure is hydrophilic (attracted to water), while the other is lipophilic (oil-loving). The lipophilic parts stick to anything greasy or oily, breaking it up into smaller globs until the whole thing can eventually be lifted off the surface and washed away. Your teeth get washed the same way dirty dishes do.

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Dental powders are another, less fashionable alternative to the tube on your bathroom counter. Another DIY project, you can make tooth powder several different ways. Chalk plus soap dust and flavoring is one recipe, but others call for clay, salt, baking soda and flavoring such as peppermint oil.

You're in good company with dental powder. The ancient Egyptians had a powder of their own, made with pumice, eggshells and the ashes of hooves. In the centuries after, oyster shells, charcoal and bark also made it into dentifrices. The first real paste entered the market in the 1850s, but ingredients like SLS didn't show up in toothpaste until after 1945 -- when they replaced soap.

These methods do clean your teeth, and they're very cheap when compared to toothpaste; however, they don't contain fluoride, which the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends for oral health. And no matter what you use to brush your teeth on a daily basis, you should also floss and go to the dentist every 6 months for a thorough cleaning and exam. Periodontal disease is common, but luckily, it's also reversible if it's caught early.

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Sources

  • Al-Otaibi, M., et al. "Comparative effects of chewing sticks and toothbrushing on plaque removal and gingival health." Oral Health and Preventive Dentistry. 2003. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15643758
  • Baton Rouge Daily Gazette and Comet. Feb. 11, 1860. Newspaper Research. Jan. 3, 1860-Dec. 29, 1860. (Sept. 9, 2011) http://www.uttyler.edu/vbetts/baton_rouge_gazette&comet.htm
  • Bunn, Bill. "What's really in your shampoo." Salon.com. Aug. 13, 2009. (Sept. 8, 2011) http://www.salon.com/news/environment/good_life/2009/08/13/shampoo
  • Colgate.com. "History of Toothbrushes and Toothpastes." June 12, 2006. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://www.colgate.com/app/CP/US/EN/OC/Information/Articles/Oral-and-Dental-Health-Basics/Oral-Hygiene/Brushing-and-Flossing/article/History-of-Toothbrushes-and-Toothpastes.cvsp
  • Connelly, Thomas P. "The History of Toothpaste: From 5000 B.C. to the Present." Huffington Post. Sept. 2, 2010. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thomas-p-connelly-dds/mouth-health-the-history-_b_702332.html
  • Everyday Mysteries. "Who invented the toothbrush, and when was it invented?" The Library of Congress. Aug. 3, 2010. (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/tooth.html
  • Klionsky, Dan. "Supermaket Biology: What you need to know to survive the aisles." Life Sciences Institute, University of Michigan. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://lecb.physics.lsa.umich.edu/wl/carma/2005/winter-sat-morn-phys/20050219-umwlap001-01-klionsky/real/sld025.htm
  • Lewis, Madeline. "Hey kids, wash your teeth off with soap." Columbia University News Service. (Sept. 10, 2011) http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2008-03-04/lewis-toothsoap.html
  • The Ohio State University Medical Center. "Brushing and Toothpaste." (Sept. 8, 2011) http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/dental_care/brushing_toothpaste/Pages/index.aspx
  • PRWeb. "Global Toothpaste Market to Reach US$12.6 Billion by 2015, According to New Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc." Oct. 19, 2010. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://www.prweb.com/releases/toothpaste_oral_care/whitening_regular/prweb4661914.htm
  • Wu, C.D. et al. "Chewing sticks: timeless natural toothbrushes for oral cleansing." Journal of Periodontal Research. October 2001. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1034/j.1600-0765.2001.360502.x/abstract

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