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Brush your way to a greener (and whiter) smile

Looking to treat your teeth to more than just the mass-brands? GreenDAY columnist Marisa Belger looks for the most powerful, effective and natural toothpaste.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Having trouble keeping up with our increasingly organic, eco-friendly world? Let me be your guide! From all-natural make-up to the best in eco-conscious jeans I will test and review the products and treatments that are best for you and the planet.

I dig oral hygiene. There. I said it. And I’ll say it again: I am a die-hard advocate of a clean mouth, sparkling teeth, and a healthy pink tongue. 

I’m the type to brush more than twice a day if given the opportunity and I actually enjoy flossing. Sure, my determination to maintain fresh breath and a bright smile borders on obsessive, but I’m not ashamed. I just continue to work towards my dream of installing a mini sink next to our bed so my husband and I can brush before we even rise.

About a year ago, after much dissatisfaction with mass-market brands, I went on a quest to find the most powerful, effective and natural toothpaste available today. Although the big brands promised an ever-expanding list of oral benefits: blindingly white teeth, frosty fresh breath, no tartar, and zero cavities, I wanted more. I wanted fresh breath, clean teeth, and an ingredient list that didn’t require scientific translation.

If you can whip up a rustic paste at home — all you need is baking soda, water, salt, and glycerin — I wondered why there are so many ingredients in the average tube and more importantly, what exactly, are these compounds? Flip over any major brand of toothpaste and you’ll probably find fluoride — an ingredient so controversial that it requires another column —and sodium lauryl sulfate, a common detergent that makes brushing foamy and which has been linked to skin irritation.

A popular, colorfully striped toothpaste — which will remain unnamed — also includes, among others: sodium saccharin, an artificial sweetener often used to sweeten toothpastes, mouthwashes, and lipsticks and which, according to The Environmental Working Group (EWG), is still being studied for potential carcinogenic and reproductive toxicity; titanium dioxide, which sounds intimidating, but is actually a fairly harmless (it has little to no toxicity when used externally, but the EWG says that it may cause lung complications if significant amounts are inhaled) white pigment powder that helps to make toothpastes paste-like; and FD & C blue # 1 a blue dye that can also be found in cosmetics, candy, soda and that the EWG has found to have toxic effects in animals when given in moderate does.

Unless you’re a two-year old brusher, you don’t usually ingest toothpaste, so you may be asking, what’s the big deal, Marisa, don’t you have better things to worry about? For me, an avid and passionate brusher as noted above, there are a couple of things worthy of concern:

1. Like any personal care product (that’s anything you use on your skin, hair, teeth, eyes, and so on) the ingredients in toothpaste can be absorbed through the tissues of the mouth and into the bloodstream.

2. I will be supervising said two-year old brusher sooner than later — I’m due in February—and can’t get excited about my progeny digesting copious amounts of an ingredient that is thought to cause no harm when used “externally.”

But, as always, I’m here with good news too, in the form of a wide variety of natural toothpaste options. Like any other personal care item, when shopping for toothpaste take a minute to check out the ingredient list. Today is the perfect time to start treating your cosmetic, grooming, and hygiene products like food products — you wouldn’t purchase that mysterious can of soup without reading the ingredients, so why would you clean your teeth with something unknown? Your toothpaste should be made of substances that are easily recognizable, easily researched, or clearly explained on the package.

I always look for toothpastes — or gels if that’s what you’re into — that contain natural flavors and no sweeteners, artificial or otherwise. But flavor is important—or else we could all use baking soda and sandpaper to maintain our pearly whites — so I seek out those that use mint essential oil, which may be listed as menta piperita.

My all-time favorite natural brushing accompaniment is Jason Powersmile, recommended by my friend, V., who kindly warned me that the paste’s supercharged peppermint punch was not for the novice. If you’d like to start a bit slower, good old Tom’s of Maine, offers a wide selection of natural toothpastes that satisfy the young crowd with Silly Strawberry and the older folks too, with mild flavors like Cinnamon-Clove, Peppermint, Spearmint, and Wintermint. Weleda’s line of natural toothpaste comes in unique flavors that may be an acquired taste, but will absolutely grow on you with consistent use: Calendula, Plant Gel, and Salt (don’t be afraid, baking soda is the number one ingredient). Also look for toothpastes that contain tea tree oil (a natural antiseptic), neem oil (another antiseptic often used in Ayurvedic remedies), or green tea (thought to increase the anti-microbial affects of toothpaste).

Natural toothpaste can be found at your local health food store, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and even some national drug store chains. Happy brushing!

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with over 10 years experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of—a multi-platform media company specializing in health, wellness, and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on "The Lazy Environmentalist" (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.