How Things Work: Toothpaste

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many people would agree that food is one of the great pleasures of life. However, one of the principle tools we use to eat — our teeth — are poorly rewarded for the work they perform. In return for their work in crushing food and enabling us to eat all sorts of delicious substances, they are attacked by acid and dental bacteria. Fortunately, toothpaste can help mitigate the harmful effects that can befall teeth. This commonplace substance contains many ingredients that give it its potency and make it so essential to dental health.

According to researchers at New York University, toothpaste is not a recent invention; humans realized long ago the importance of keeping teeth clean and healthy. This substance originated about 6000 years ago in several forms. In China, twigs, flower petals, salt, water, and bones were mashed and put on the end of a sharp bamboo leaf to apply to teeth. In Egypt, salt, pepper, mint leaves, and iris flowers were mixed into a paste and used. In India, twigs from trees known for special dental properties were chewed upon and rubbed against teeth. All these methods led to healthy teeth that did not suffer from dental problems.

Now, let’s brush up on the science (pun intended) behind dental problems with some help from Our teeth are made of layers; the outermost one is comprised of hard enamel. This hard substance protects the softer inside and nerves of our teeth. When taken care of, this enamel can last us an entire lifetime. However, modern-day diets that are extremely high in sugars and carbohydrates can cause several dental problems.

Sugars and carbohydrates release sulfur molecules that are responsible for dreaded bad breath. In addition, these substances are consumed by bacteria living in the teeth and enable them to multiply quickly. These bacteria release acids that eat away at enamel. If the enamel erodes, it exposes the nerves underneath which can lead to extreme pain and discomfort. Also, if the acid keeps building up, it may reach the root and render the tooth useless. The bacteria that cause all these problems live in plaque and food debris in our teeth. Toothpaste can help remove these bacteria, helping to prevent several dental problems.

According to, one of the most well-known ingredients in toothpaste is fluoride. This element is naturally found in several foods like tea, fish, vegetables, and fruits. It is necessary for healthy teeth as it helps draw in minerals like calcium to the enamel and helps repair the tooth. Fluoride also attaches itself to weakened parts of the tooth, which keeps the tooth stronger in the future. These properties of fluoride are also the reason it is added to water supplies, and has been instrumental in improving the dental health of most people in the last few decades.

In addition to fluoride, toothpastes also contain other common materials. Toothpaste can contain abrasives, which help remove plaque and polish the teeth. These abrasives need to be able to scrub away harmful substances without causing permanent damage to the tooth enamel.

Toothpaste also contains detergents, which give rise to the foam created while brushing. Toothpaste manufacturers also give importance to the texture of toothpaste. Humectants are the substances used to ensure that toothpaste stays moist and doesn’t dry out while in the tube. Thickeners are used to make the toothpaste stick together when squeezed from the tube and stick to the brush. Finally, preservatives and flavors ensure that toothpaste stays fresh and is enticing to users no matter what their taste preferences might be.

With the variety and styles of toothpaste available to us today, it is possible for everyone to find a type suited to their exact needs. The various benefits of toothpaste make it an essential part of our lives. Now, if only we could all floss regularly too.