Brush and protect your teeth naturally with these homemade toothpaste recipes and tips for optimal dental hygiene from a dentist.
One thing that doesn't come up much on this blog is my pre-blogging career. If you've visited and read my “about me” page, you may already know that I'm a dentist. I earned my D.D.S. degree over 10 years ago, but when I came to Spain I wasn't able to validate my degree. With too many dentists here already, they have recently made it mostly impossible for anybody who has studied outside the European Union to legally practice here.
Rather than do as many foreign dentists and practice illegally, I began looking for other work, and eventually ended up starting my blog. It's something I absolutely love, and now I don't think I could ever go back.
While I am not currently practicing, I do happen to know a lot about teeth and dental hygiene. I've avoided writing about dental health up until now, but decided that it's about time that I help you understand why and how we get cavities and gingivitis in the hopes that you can prevent them and take back your dental health.
DISCLAIMER: This post is meant to be informative only. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition. While I use these homemade toothpaste recipes myself, I also recognize that there are many dentists who will only approve of fluoridated toothpastes with the ADA seal. (The ADA will only place their seal on toothpastes with fluoride in them.) Keep that in mind when choosing what toothpaste you choose to use.
The importance of brushing your teeth
Brushing your teeth, as you probably know, is very important for your oral hygiene, and serves several important functions.
First, brushing your teeth helps remove food debris and plaque. Dental plaque is basically a buildup of bacteria that forms on the teeth and gums. Some of these bacteria, mainly streptococcus mutans and other lactobacillus types, metabolize sugars and produce acids that form cavities.
Normally, your saliva helps buffer the pH and there is an equilibrium between the ions in the hydroxyapatite crystals of your tooth enamel and those floating around in your saliva. In an acidic environment, though, your teeth begin to demineralize. In other words, in the acidic environment caused by the bacteria, some of the ions dissolve from the enamel crystals leading to what we know as cavities.
Brushing isn't only about preventing cavities, though. Dental plaque can also harden into what is known as tartar which can lead to gingivitis and periodontal disease. Removing the plaque, then, is important for both preventing cavities and for preventing gingivitis and periodontal disease. (Gingivitis, or gum disease, when left untreated can progress to become periodontal disease that affects the bone structure holding your teeth in place.)
Apart from removing the plaque from your teeth, brushing your teeth also helps massage your gums, stimulating better circulation for healthier gums. Even those without teeth should brush their gums regularly to help improve circulation and ensure healthier tissues.
What about toothpaste, though?
The purpose of toothpaste
Toothpaste is normally formed of abrasives, active ingredients, and flavorings. It is intended to help remove plaque and freshen your mouth, while also delivering active ingredients meant to help protect against caries (aka. cavities).
While many people think of a toothpaste as being the important part of your dental hygiene routine, thinking that something magical in the toothpaste will help eliminate plaque and keep you from getting cavities, unfortunately it's not that simple. In fact, if you're using toothpaste mainly as a mean of removing plaque, you may be surprised to find that a review study done last year found that using a toothpaste when brushing didn't provide any extra plaque removing abilities.
So, brushing your teeth, even without any toothpaste at all, already does a pretty good job of removing plaque and helping in the fight for optimal dental health.
But does toothpaste serve another purpose?
Most commercial toothpastes have additives meant to help prevent cavities in other ways.
Fluoride is the most popular active ingredient added to toothpaste.
How does fluoride prevent dental cavities?
Fluoride is added to toothpaste in an effort to remineralize teeth that have been demineralized by the bacterial plaque. Under the right conditions, the fluoride ion can substitute part of the missing crystaline structure of the enamel. Enamel is mostly formed of what it called hydroxyapatite (Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2), but fluoride ions can become incorporated into the enamel structure forming what is known as fluorapatite (Ca10(PO4)6F2).
In the presence of fluoride, remineralization takes place more quickly, and the newly formed fluorapatite is said to be less soluble than hydroxyapatite, which means that it is less likely to demineralize again if and when the acidic conditions return.
The problem with fluoridated toothpaste
While adding fluoride to toothpaste can help prevent cavities, it also brings with it toxicity concerns. At high doses, fluoride may affect bone formation, cause digestive issues, kidney problems, or suppress the thyroid. At lower doses it can cause cosmetic issues like fluorosis of the teeth, something I know from experience, as I have mild dental fluorosis myself.
To prevent having toxic amounts of fluoride in the toothpaste, in case young children were to ingest an entire tube of toothpaste, the levels of fluoride in toothpaste are pretty low for a topical application.
When you think about it, the method of trying to incorporate fluoride into the tooth structure through toothpaste doesn't sound that effective. Most people are brushing for only a minute or two at best, simultaneously removing the layer of plaque while trying to topically deliver a dose of fluoride to the teeth. In order to incorporate the fluoride ion into the enamel structure, you need an ideal environment with a high pH.
To make up for the non-ideal method of giving your teeth their fluoride dose, they tell you that you shouldn't be rinsing after you brush to help keep the fluoride in contact with your teeth for longer. (Of course, that also means that you have the fluoride in your mouth for longer and are involuntarily swallowing small amounts of it during that time.) Toothpastes with a higher concentration of fluoride are available with a prescription, but should be used with caution.
Each person has to weigh out the potential benefits and risks of using a fluoridated toothpaste. While fluoride may help in the fight against cavities, relying on fluoride toothpaste to keep cavities away isn't your best bet. Cleaning up your diet, and removing cavity causing foods, is not only a healthier way of keeping cavities at bay, but it also a lot more effective. (If there's enough interest, I can give my tips for keeping cavities away some other day!)
Plus, there are other less toxic substances that can help with remineralization instead…
Watch me make my natural, homemade toothpaste recipes
Other problematic ingredients in toothpaste
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
The main ingredient I wanted to avoid, that happens to be found in most commercial toothpastes, is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Both my husband and I used to get canker sores quite often, and SLS in toothpaste has been linked to an increased recurrence of canker sores. SLS is a surfactant that helps give toothpaste its foaming quality, but in exchange can irritate the mucosa of your mouth. If I wanted a foamy toothpaste (which I don't), I'd probably just follow Dr. Bronner's advice and use liquid Castile soap instead. (For the DIY-ers who want to try it, I have several liquid Castile soap recipes up on the blog).
Ditching the SLS has been enough to keep the canker sores away for years now. I can't remember the last time I got one.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that remains in your mouth for hours after having brushed your teeth. It is added to prevent the bacterial plaque from forming, thereby preventing cavities, gingivitis and periodontitis. It has been removed from most brands due to safety concerns, but Colgate still uses it in their Colgate Total® toothpaste. While their studies conclude that the benefits outweigh the risks, there isn't really a lot of non partial data to study.
Triclosan has been banned from hand soaps because it was shown that antibacterial soaps weren't more effective than using plain soap, and that using antibacterial agents like Triclosan risked the creation of antibacterial resistant bacteria. It was allowed to remain in toothpaste, though, because Colgate convinced the government of the increased potential benefit.
I have several problems with it.
Two, just as taking antibiotics every day isn't the best way to keep yourself disease free, I can't imagine using antibiotics in your mouth is the best way to keep your mouth disease free. Our digestive system has a delicate balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria, and taking antibiotics constantly can wreak havoc on our digestive system by killing off the good bacteria along with the bad. I'd imagine that our mouths, the beginning of the digestive system, is the same way.
Without knowing more, I don't like the idea of risking throwing off the balance of bacteria in my mouth, especially not as a preventative measure.
If you were dealing with a period of rampant cavities or have severe gingivitis and/or periodontitis, using a topical antibacterial agent may be helpful to control the disease for a short time, just as you'd use an antibiotic for a short period of time to deal with other diseases. In this hypothetical situation, though, it would really be a lot more effective, and healthier, to find and remove the cause of the rampant caries instead. (Perhaps someone was sucking on cough drops all day to deal with a sore throat and cough, not realizing that the habit was also causing multiple cavities. Rather than use an antibacterial agent against the cavities, it would be more helpful to identify the cough drops as the culprit and either stop using them or limit the way they were used.)
Formulating a natural homemade toothpaste
Today, I'm going to share with you several different methods of making a homemade toothpaste.
In the interest of avoiding the need for preservatives, many (most) recipes for a natural, homemade toothpaste are oil based.
What ingredients can be used in a homemade toothpaste?
Coconut oil is a commonly chosen oil for oil based toothpastes because it is said to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, but not enough to wreak havoc on the balance of bacteria in your mouth.
Some recipes use the fact that it is solid at colder room temperatures to make a thicker, more consistent toothpaste. The disadvantage of that is that the consistency of the recipe will change from season to season, giving you a thinner toothpaste in the summer, and possibly a hard-to-use, almost solid toothpaste in the winter. I'll be sharing an oil based toothpaste recipe using coconut oil, but it can be made with either a fractionated coconut oil, or a different oil of choice, in the winter to avoid that problem. (I like using a silicone travel tube for dispensing my toothpaste, but in the winter if the toothpaste solidifies, it can be difficult to dispense the toothpaste from those dispensers.)
Oil Based Homemade Natural Toothpaste
Oil Based Homemade Toothpaste
Makes around one liquid ounce- can double or triple the recipe as needed to fill your particular tube.
- Mix together all of the dry ingredients. If you are using cacao nibs, or you find that the ingredients are too abrasive for you because you have sensitive teeth or gums, you can pulverize them in a coffee grinder. (I normally use cocoa powder, and don't grind the ingredients further, but it is an option.)
- Add coconut oil, little by little until you reach the desired consistency. If using a silicone travel tube for storage, you may want to add a bit more to make it flow easily when dispensing. In the winter, you may use fractionated coconut oil or a different liquid oil to keep the toothpaste from solidifying.
- Fill your silicone tube or storage containers with the toothpaste. It's now ready to use!
Water Based homemade toothpastes
Most commercial toothpastes are water based. Once you add water to a homemade natural product recipe, though, you are also introducing a source for bacterial growth to form. That is why many prefer either an oil based toothpaste or a homemade tooth powder.
When making a natural homemade toothpaste, though, we are looking to make a product that isn't very hospitable for bacterial growth. Several ingredients in the toothpaste will help keep the toothpaste safe to use for longer.
Just as salt helps preserve foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, salt cured olives, and homemade anchovy fillets, adding salt to the toothpaste will help inhibit the formation of dangerous bacteria. It may have other beneficial properties, though.
If you are using a salt like pink Himalayan salt, you are also adding beneficial minerals to the recipe. Apart from that, salt can help stimulate saliva formation, which, in itself, can help keep cavities away. Saliva helps buffer the pH, keeping cavities away. (That's why having a dry mouth can be a major factor in cavity formation.)
Baking soda can be found in a lot of toothpastes. It's a different sort of salt that helps raise the pH of your toothpaste. The alkalinity of the baking soda can help neutralize the acids in your mouth, which can help fight cavities. (Remember: it's the acids from the bacteria that lead to cavities in the first place.)
The high pH of the baking soda (around pH=9) also helps preserve the toothpaste in a way. Most bacteria prefer a pH near neutral (pH=7). That said, there are some microbes, called alkaliphiles, that can survive in alkaline environments of 8.5-11. In combination with the salt, we are making a not-so-hospitable environment for bacteria, but we should still be cautious and make small batches of water based toothpastes, just in case, especially since most of us won't be able to do periodic testing of our toothpastes for unwanted microbes.
Bentonite clay is a great addition to homemade toothpaste because it helps give your toothpaste consistency. Here in Spain bentonite clay isn't as commonly found, and homemade toothpastes usually call for white clays like kaolin clay instead.
While either is fine, I tend to prefer bentonite clay for several reasons. Bentonite clay has a high pH, (pH=8-9.7), which, once again, helps to combat cavities. Bentonite is also said to bind to toxins and impurities to help remove them. Whether or not that is true and helpful in the context of a homemade toothpaste (I wasn't able to find any studies to support or oppose that idea), it is a clay that can be easily found in food safe grade, and one that is extremely useful to have on hand anyway. I use it often in my activated charcoal facial mask, and it works wonders on my oily, acne prone skin.
Xylitol is an interesting sweetener because not only does it not cause cavities, it may actually help reduce them. When I was in dental school, prescriptions for a xylitol gum were sometimes given to patients with a tendency towards cavities. These gums work in several ways. The act of chewing gum stimulates saliva production, which helps keep saliva in contact with the teeth to help buffer the acids that can damage your teeth. If you are using a gum with sugar, though, you're causing more harm than good. Xylitol on the other hand seems to discourage the formation of cavities by helping to raise the pH of saliva in the mouth. While some modern studies are calling into doubt just how much of a help it really is, it is still a sweetener that is safe for your teeth and is great for homemade toothpastes.
Cacao is a fun addition to your natural homemade toothpaste that may make it a lot more appealing to kids. Theobromine, one of the components of cacao, has shown promise in the remineralization of teeth. In fact, some have said that theobromine may be a safer, better alternative to fluoride in toothpaste.
I came across its beneficial effects on teeth by accident when I saw people raving about a chocolate toothpaste in an online forum. I was tempted to buy it and test it out, but there were a few things I didn't like about it. Apart from being quite expensive, it seems to be glycerine based. I haven't found any studies to back up the popular idea that glycerin can help prevent the remineralization of teeth, but like to avoid it just to err on the side of caution.
Does it stain your teeth?
I've been using homemade toothpastes with cacao in various forms on and off for almost 2 years now with no signs of staining. I've also read mixed things about whether or not it “should” stain your teeth. Some hypothesize that because the theobromine helps strengthen teeth, that in the end cacao could help prevent any staining. In the end, I have to admit that I'm not sure, but can only state that I haven't noticed any staining after years of using it. It will leave dark marks on your sink, though, if you don't rinse well after spitting it out.
You can use ground cacao nibs or cocoa powder, but I've found that even when grinding up the nibs finely in a coffee grinder that little bits stay behind and get stuck between your teeth. While that's a great incentive to floss, it's likely off-putting to most.
Water Based Toothpaste Recipe
Water Based Homemade Toothpaste Recipe
Makes around 1 liquid ounce.
- Mix together all of the dry ingredients. If you are using cacao nibs or find that the ingredients are too abrasive for your sensitive teeth as is, you can grind them in a coffee grinder before adding in the water.
- Add distilled water until you get the desired consistency. mix thoroughly.
- Add a few drops of an essential oil like peppermint or clove oil, if desired, for flavor.
- Fill your silicone travel tube, or other storage container, with your toothpaste. You are now ready to use it!
How to use these homemade toothpastes
As far as I'm concerned, your technique for brushing is more important than the toothpaste you use (and if you use toothpaste or not).
We all use electric toothbrushes in our home because I find that the rotating action of the toothbrush allows for proper technique without doing a lot of work. This is especially important for young children or people who don't have good control with their hands.
While it is normally suggested that you brush your teeth multiple times a day, I think the most important thing is to have at least one thorough brushing session each day, preferably right before you go to bed. It's great (and preferable) if you can get in a quick brush after your meals, to help clear off food debris and to help raise the pH after having ingested acidic foods. But, don't let the fact that you've done a quick brush after your meals keep you from getting in your thorough brushing session at night before you go to sleep. Our favorite periodontal instructor in dental school always pushed that concept, and it's stuck with me ever since. I have a hard time going to sleep without getting in that all important thorough brushing session at night.
When doing a thorough brushing session, you want to make sure that you brush each tooth surface completely. You want to brush with small, circular motions following the contour of your gums, or guide an electric toothbrush to gently massage your teeth and gums at the gum line.
Use a toothbrush with soft bristles. You should be brushing for at least 2 minutes, which is normally the programmed time for an “alarm” of sorts on electric toothbrushes.
After that thorough brushing session, it's the ideal moment to floss between all teeth, and behind the last teeth in your mouth. You want to gently bring the floss down along the side of each tooth, gently pushing down past the gum line, and pulling up any trapped food debris and leftover plaque accumulation on your way back up.
If you want to do a final rinse, in my next DIY, I'll share with you a quick and easy recipe for an alcohol free homemade mouth rinse!
This post is also available in Español.