Trouble in the tube

Rating: NNNNN

Many people are a little freaked out about that whole toothpaste scare thing. First, last month products imported from China were found to contain diethylene glycol (DEG), a chemical used in antifreeze, and now Neem Active Toothpaste has been declared unsafe. The latter, made by the Calcutta Chemical Company Ltd. in India, was found to contain both DEG and high levels of harmful bacteria.

Health Canada says ingesting Neem can produce adverse effects including fever, urinary tract infection and potentially life-threatening dehydration.

Yeah, okay, but why has it been available for so long? I know people who have been using this product for years. Unfortunately, Health Canada isn’t so clear on this point.

If you do want to buy a more natural toothpaste, what can you do?

Aside from the bad stuff named in the current recall, many say regular ingredients themselves can be harmful. These include propylene glycol, extremely toxic to fish in high concentrations, and the sudsing irritant sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Then there’s the fluoride debate many deem the substance toxic. Read the label, since even health food store brands aren’t necessarily free of these. But you know what? Some say you don’t need the tubed stuff at all.

what the experts say

“Good studies showing the superiority of one toothpaste over another are rare. The quality of the toothpaste sold in health food stores depends on the manufacturer. Stick with one with a reputation for quality. When health claims are made (e.g., fights decay), the product has to have a drug ID number (DIN) or general public (GP) number . If there’s no claim and the product is a natural one, look for an eight-digit number and the letters NPN ( natural product number) or DIN-HM (for homeopathic ), which means it’s been approved by Health Canada. All others are unregulated. Buyer beware. A toothbrush can clean without paste. Toothpaste contains ingredients designed to remove plaque more efficiently than brushing alone. Flossing is almost essential. Fluoridated toothpaste helps adults at risk for dental decay, but only marginally.

HARDY LIMEBACK , faculty of dentistry, University of Toronto

“I’m not a fan of fluoride. If you go to the health food store you can find good toothpastes, but you can also find ones with preservatives and fluoride. You have to read the ingredients. Certain herbs are known to be antibacterial. I have patients who use oregano oil on their toothbrush, though it’s strong and might burn. Other things said to be good are cinnamon, peppermint, red thyme, echinacea and gotu kola. You can have the best toothbrush and best toothpaste, but if you use bad technique you’re not going to do much good. If you use no toothpaste but good technique, your teeth will come out clean.”

GARY FORTINSKY , holistic dentist, Toronto

“I don’t like conventional toothpaste because of the fluoride. We get plenty in our water supply. People should use the most natural thing they can get. Even Tom’s of Maine has fluoride, and some of these products aren’t abrasive enough. A lot of toothpastes are sweetened with sodium saccharine. It would be nice to see more sweetened with xylitol. It’s antibacterial and prevents cavities. Any company that uses xylitol is probably reputable. Check how abrasive it is by calling the company. No toothpaste is fine. We advise parents of children under three or four to brush their teeth with just water.”

IDELLE BRAND , dental surgeon, New York City

“When Health Canada identifies or is notified of a product that is potentially not following appropriate regulations, it will verify the information and work with the party responsible to bring the product or activity into compliance with regulations. Potential issues may be identified by consumers, industry, provincial or federal regulatory agencies, international partners or through Health Canada’s own monitoring activities.”

CAROLE SAINDON , Health Canada, Ottawa

“The regulations for natural product numbers were introduced in 2004, and the transition period goes until 2010. During the transition, if a manufacturer has submitted an application for an NPN, it is allowed to sell the product. After 2010, no natural product can be sold without the number.”

PENNY MARRETT , president,CEO, Canadian Health Food Association, Toronto

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