If you've ever wondered what's in your toothpaste—and whether it's good for you—you may be interested to know this: Some products marketed as safer-than-usual may not be as beneficial as they claim. A new report casts a skeptical eye over the toothpaste market and finds that "natural" and "premium" brands are not all they're cracked up to be.
"Some of the brands in the better-for-you space in Whole Foods and specialty markets include materials you wouldn't want to ingest," says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a group that campaigns for organic agriculture. "Some of them contain artificial colors and flavorings, plasticizers, and triclosan" (an antibacterial agent).
Cornucopia's toothpaste scorecard ranks brands by the potentially harmful chemicals they include (and, conversely, the organic products they sometimes substitute in). "Natural" products like Kiss My Face toothpaste and premium ones like Estée Lauder's Go Smile Luxury Toothpaste contain several artificial colors, sweeteners, and flavorings, the group says.
"Some companies that for decades enjoyed premium prices in the natural food category, like Tom's of Maine and Kiss My Face, don't have exemplary scores. Some have poor scores," says Kastel. Tom's of Maine, owned by Colgate-Palmolive, is marked down for containing "artificial surfactants, detergentsm [or] foaming agents" and for using a seaweed-derived chemical called carrageenan, which some scientists say could induce inflammations.
Mainstream products like Colgate and Crest come near the bottom of the list, as they contain most of the ingredients Cornucopia says are harmful. Colgate products contain triclosan, an antibacterial agent that's been linked with hormone disruption and antibiotic-resistance. Triclosan, long a controversial addition to toothpaste and hand soaps, is banned for many uses in the European Union, but continues to be allowed here. Colgate argues it's essential for preventing gingivitis, though most manufacturers have decided to do without it.
Kastel criticizes the way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetic products, including toothpaste. Most ingredients do not need official approval before being used. And the FDA has to meet the high bar of proving human harm before it can ban chemicals. "We have a regulatory environment that's very favorable to the industrial sector," he says.
The EU strikes a much harder line on chemical safety, whether it's cleaning products for the home, or goop you put on your face or in your mouth. Of the 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetic products, only 11 are restricted for use in the U.S. while 1,300 chemicals are prohibited in Europe, the report says.
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Correction: This article said triclosan was a plasticizer; it's an antibacterial agent.