How Toothpaste Works to Clean Teeth

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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toothpaste on toothbrush

Eating is one of the great pleasures of life, but it takes its toll on our teeth.

From candy to coffee, even crackers, teeth are bombarded non-stop by what we eat, which is why brushing at least twice daily is so important.

Our teeth are made up of three layers. Damage to all of these layers can lead to teeth and gum problems, but the outer layer, the enamel, is the most vulnerable to tooth decay. When this layer is chipped, damaged or dissolved, it can lead to plaque build-up, a mix of bacteria that grips on to the tooth’s surface. This bacteria produces acid, which eats into tooth enamel, causing cavities. It’s also the culprit of bad breath. Thank goodness we have toothpaste to help wipe out — and ward off — both.

What’s in a toothpaste?

Though every toothpaste has a slightly different make-up, most contain similar ingredients that play a unique role in keeping your teeth clean and healthy:

  • Abrasives gently polish the teeth, helping to break down and dissolve stains and remove plaque.
  • Detergents are what make toothpaste create foam, which helps dislodge food debris and plaque. It also feels pretty good on the gums.

  • Preservatives help prevent the growth of bacteria or other organisms in the toothpaste.

  • Humectants and Thickeners (such as cellulose gum) give toothpaste its texture. They help the paste retain moisture and stay on the brush.

  • Flavoring and Coloring Agents, as the names suggest, give your toothpaste a more inviting taste and color.

The Fluoride Fighter

Of course, many toothpastes also contain fluoride. While fluoride is found naturally in rocks, soil and drinking water, it’s also chemically formulated and a key ingredient in toothpaste. Not only does it make teeth stronger and prevent cavities, it can also help reverse early tooth decay. When tooth enamel is weakened by acid, fluoride promotes a chemical reaction that replaces minerals, such as calcium and phosphate, to strengthen the enamel. This also makes it more resistant to future acid attacks.

Choosing the Best Toothpaste

With all the different types of toothpastes on the market, it may feel like a scavenger hunt to find the one that best suits your needs. You may see terms like “tartar-control,” “cavity-protection” and “anti-plaque” on the packaging, but be sure to choose a product that contains fluoride and has the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal. This shows the toothpaste has been tested for the right amount of fluoride to protect your teeth. Then you can choose one that also offers additional benefits, like whitening, or special ingredients for sensitive teeth.

Talk to Your Dentist

Be sure to ask your dentist about other products containing fluoride, such as mouth rinses, that may be an additional defense against tooth decay. Your dentist may also recommend an annual fluoride treatment at your dental visit. The water you drink should also have fluoride (be aware that not all bottled waters contain fluoride).

Your dentist can also recommend products for sensitive or stained teeth. If you find a whitening toothpaste is not doing the trick, you may want to ask about other tooth-whitening options, such as over-the-counter or professional bleaching products.

Along with regular dental visits, finding a toothpaste that both cleans and protects (with fluoride) will help you keep that shiny, healthy smile.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. The Superhero That Lives Inside Your Mouth. Mouth Healthy. American Dental Association.

  2. Does whitening toothpaste actually whiten teeth? Mayo Clinic.

  3. How Does Toothpaste Work? The Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association.