While the actual toothbrush does most of the cleaning of our teeth, the abrasive nature of toothpaste, also known as dentifrice, and its additives definitely improve the quality of care. Ancient Romans and Greeks used crushed bone and shell to clean their teeth, and Europeans used toothpowder made from crushed brick, chalk, and even burnt bread. By the early 1900s, people used baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. They started adding fluoride in the 1890s, but people didn’t find this much in the US until the 1950s.

The toothpaste found in your local drugstore is a definite improvement on the above—although Arm & Hammer still makes options based on baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. The toothpastes of today are also much more palatable than their predecessors, featuring flavors like mint, cinnamon, and even bubblegum for children.

Despite the many improvements, choosing a toothpaste is a lot more complicated. Different brands, and different products within each brand, market themselves with claims of whiting capabilities, extra cavity protection, and help with sensitivity. Many even advertise as being complete solutions. So how do you know what to look for in a toothpaste?

Your best bet is to look for the American Dental Association’s (ADA) seal of approval. In order to qualify for this, the toothpaste must meet certain requirements. The most important of these requirements is that the toothpaste must be fluoridated. Fluoridated toothpaste not only removes the plaque that can cause cavities and gum disease; it helps strengthen the enamel as an extra line of defense.

Toothpaste must also be slightly abrasive to help reduce stains and debris; ingredients such as calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, and phosphate salts are often used. ADA-approved toothpastes are all flavored using agents that do not promote decay, such as saccharin. They will also typically contain ingredients to prevent water loss, thicken the paste, and create a foam.

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