A graphic photo of animal testing by an oral care brand prompted an impassioned plea on my part to my network. I have given up commercial toothpastes and toothbrushes for over a year now and make my own toothpowder. I find animal testing for toothpastes incomprehensible, yet it continues to exist as a standard practice for toothpaste manufacturers.
Srini and I have been primarily using a toothpowder that I formulated and which can be made at home. We have also experimented with two traditional Ayurvedic brands of toothpowders for oral care. In this experimental year we have found that our teeth feel stronger, we have no tooth aches and our breath feels distinctly fresher.
I got a staggering response to my impassioned plea– so many messages asking me to share my toothpowder formulation that I felt that it required a detailed blog post to provide the scientific context to the formulation.
Until 5 years ago I was a fanatical brusher – I brushed atleast twice a day, used mouth wash and had even started flossing on the advice of my dentist. All this attention did no good to my teeth – my gums bled every time I flossed, I started developing cavities in my molar, and my dentist told me that the enamel of my teeth had actually begun to wear out. I had also started developing sensitivity in my teeth and was asked to switch to special toothpaste.
During this era of enthusiastic brushing, Srini and I were also part of an advanced martial arts class in our quest for better fitness. One of our classmates was Dr B, a senior dental surgeon from Nair Hospital, Mumbai. A chat with him after yet another visit to the dentist proved rather insightful.
After venting my dental frustration to Dr.B, he told me , rather casually, if I had considered that my teeth were getting worse because of and not inspite of all my brushing, rinsing, flossing ? He said that the combination of the strong toothpastes, frequent brushing and hard toothbrush bristles were probably wearing down my enamel, exposing the nerves of my teeth and making them more sensitive and prone to more cavities.
That day I asked myself ,”what is exactly the problem with brushing twice a day with regular toothpaste?” and 5 years later I am still unravelling the puzzle. I have relentlessly researched literature on all manner of natural dental care regimes. I have bought and brushed with Babool twigs (which were purportedly from Arabia), I have made my own mouthwashes and rinses, and have experimented with toothpastes that were fluoride-free, for sensitive teeth and toothpowders to arrive at a sound oral care framework to protect my teeth and gums.
In the beginning there was plaque.
People who can summon the courage to visit their dentist regularly would have discussed plaque. The rest of us who rely on television to fill the gaps in our education have seen advertising calling it that “unsightly yellowish cement like substance” that forms on teeth. Toothpastes have graduated from merely promising fresh breath to a determined war to end plaque. They now have added the promise of sparkling white teeth with whitening and micro polishing variants.
Dentists disagree – they believe a quarterly cleanup is the only way to eliminate plaque. I have endured several bouts of rather painful plaque cleaning wishing I was elsewhere.
Plaque is also touted as the cause of tooth decay and alarming images of teeth crumbling add to people and dentists hating it even more.
But whether you use an anti-plaque toothpaste or meet your dentist religiously , plaque always returns. Why? Do we even need to eliminate plaque ?
What is plaque?
Plaque is a bio-film formed by communities of oral bacteria that try to attach themselves to the smooth surface i.e. enamel of teeth.
Oral microbiologists like Philip D Marsh, have hypothesised on the little known nature of dental plaque. Dental plaque is a bio-film, an aggregate of micro-organisms where the cells adhere to each other and any living or non-living surface like teeth (in the case of plaque), and other natural, industrial or hospital settings. These cells are embedded on a self-produced bio medium composed of DNA, polysaccharides and proteins.
This bio film is a matrix of polymers which are partly contributed by the host (the human being) and partly by the bacterial community.
This dental bio-film contributes to the normal development of the host’s defence mechanism and physiology.
To summarize, plaque by itself is a natural formation and not harmful. It is our response to plaque and other factors like what we eat ( explained below) that wrongly frames plaque as the villain of piece.
The “Whiteness” Epidemic
Plaque, in western or allopathic dentistry is seen as a contaminating substance and un-aesthetic, so cosmetic dentistry procedures like teeth bleaching and “whitening” exist to remove this “unsightly cement like growth” from the teeth.
Popular advertising furthers this notion encouraging people to find “white” teeth attractive – the modern toothpaste has also been designed on this principle. Half the contents of the modern toothpaste are abrasive particles used to dislodge plaque from the teeth and “micro polish” the enamel. Frequent brushing with this can itself lead to enamel wear and tear, causing increased sensitivity in teeth.
Watch what you eat
In a normal, healthy oral cavity, plaque forms in a stable and orderly fashion comprising of a diverse microbial composition – upto 25,000 different species of bacteria, which remains stable over time. When dental caries ( dentist speak for cavities) arise, it is found that the balanced bacterial community has shifted in favour of the acidogenic and acid tolerating bacterial species like mutans streptococci and lactobacilli.
This increase of acidogenic and acid tolerating bacteria in the oral cavity is linked to 2 eating habits:
1. Food that is hurriedly swallowed without chewing.
When food is eaten quickly without enough chewing, there is not enough saliva produced in the mouth. The composition of human saliva is a biochemical marvel that contains besides water, enzymes that are essential in starting the process of digestion of starches and fat. These enzymes, also more pertinently to this post, help break down food particles trapped within the crevices of the teeth, helping prevent tooth decay.
2. Increased eating of sweet, fatty, acidic and processed food
Increase in sweet, acidic and fatty food (read processed food, Maida, cola, biscuits, and mostly anything that you’ve bought in a supermarket) creates a highly acidic environment in the mouth, promoting the growth of only acid tolerating bacteria in the plaque film. Simply put, eating the wrong food makes the mouth toxic for all the “good bacteria” to survive and makes it a place where only acidic species survive.
Therefore the law of tooth decay can be summarized as:
Hurried eating + No Chewing + Wrong food = tooth decay
After a visit to the dentist, everyone usually comes back with a recommendation of the brand of toothpaste to use. Supermarket shelves are full of sparkly packaging with different flavours each promising different benefits. A closer look at the ingredients however, makes for some disturbing reading.
What’s in my synthetic toothpaste and why I need to look for a better option
Toothpastes are made up of abrasives (up to 50%), fluoride, surfactants or detergents and water (20 – 40%).
The abrasive elements in toothpaste are mostly mini particles of Aluminium hydroxide, calcium carbonate or silicas, zeolites to help remove dental plaque.
The best description of caring for your teeth I have ever read advised that teeth should be gently and finely cleaned like cleaning a fine piece of muslin, and not scrubbed like dirty vessels.
So teeth should be cleaned using a fine paste or powder and should not contain the the high amount of abrasives as in most modern toothpastes. These abrasives remove the enamel layer of the teeth very quickly exposing the sensitive nerves underneath.
Apart from abrasives, surfactants or detergents are the next big part of toothpaste.
One of the most common ingredients that you will find in toothpaste is SLS – sodium Lauryl sulphate, or its cousin SLES (Sodium Laureth sulphate). Both of these are surfactants that are derived from coconut and palm oil, and are used across a variety of products like shampoos, face washes and toothpastes.
SLS is a cheap surfactant that foams and acts as a degreasing agent which is used in garages to remove grease from car engines. In the same way, it removes oil from skin leaving it dry. It also denatures skin protein thinning down the skin barrier, making way for the possible entry of other contaminants into the deeper layers of the skin.
SLS is especially worrying in toothpastes. The oral mucosa layer is much thinner than skin on your face or head – and has a rich network of blood vessels immediately behind the layer of mucosa. This is why sub lingual tablets are so effective – because of the thinness of the skin, and the dense blood vessels behind the skin, medicines get absorbed extremely quickly into the blood stream.
Therefore, using toothpaste that contains SLS, a known skin protein denaturer, and dryer is extremely worrying. Tests show a statistically significant correlation between mouth ulcers / canker sores when using a toothpaste containing SLS.
To make things worse, SLS, once it enters the bloodstream is an estrogen mimicker – which has many other health implications.
Brush aside the toothbrush
Apart from the worrying properties of toothpastes, the act of using them with a toothbrush is the last straw for those troubled with cavity prone or sensitive teeth.
The bristles of the toothbrush are not sensitive in themselves and depend upon the user to control the pressure of the bristles on the teeth and gums. Brushing the teeth is usually a mechanical action, when the brusher is barely awake and is mostly done in a hurry.
In this scenario, it is possible to brush fast and hard, treating the teeth like dirty vessels instead of a piece of fine muslin cloth.
Dentists are aware of this too – they usually recommend using a toothbrush with soft bristles to reduce enamel wear and tear. But even this is not enough to arrest this wear and tear. A thinner enamel makes it easier for cavities to develop as well.
Toothbrushes are also an ecological nightmare to manufacture and dispose. The nylon bristles are almost impossible to re-use / recycle given their size and consumers are advised to replace their toothbrushes every 3 months leading to a huge pile of toothbrushes our landfills.
What does native medicine and Ayurveda advice?
The mouth and tongue are considered a gateway to diagnosis in Ayurveda. Ayurvedic Vaidyars say that the state of the mouth reflects the state of the body and advise eating the right food in moderation along with taking good care of the mouth, teeth, gums. This is very close to the idea behind our law of tooth decay discussed earlier
The first change I made was to use my finger for brushing my teeth (as it was traditionally done) instead of a toothbrush. The benefits of this are many: The finger is softer on the teeth compared to a brush. The finger is also more mobile and sensitive and can navigate the whole mouth including difficult to reach places like the back of the molars.
Gums also need a massage as they hold the teeth together, and the finger is ideally suited to give the gums a massage as well.
After this, I added to the start of my oral care routine the practise of swishing with a tablespoon of cold-pressed, organic, sesame oil. This routine has been prescribed in the Ayurvedic texts as not just helpful for removing the toxins accumulated in the body, but to also strengthen the vocal chords. Singers and Orators have been especially advised to gargle with sesame oil.
While it does add a step to oral care, swishing with sesame oil as soon as one wakes up does not feel as weird as it sounds. You would need just a heaped table spoon of oil to do this. Try and swirl the oil vigorously around your entire mouth, concentrating on areas that feel sore or tender . Continue to swish until you can feel the oil becoming less viscous and watery in your mouth and then spit it out . If you have swished properly and for the right time, the colour and texture of the oil changes after being in the mouth – it turns yellow, soapy and watery.
After this, I then proceed to “brush” my teeth with my index finger with a natural / Ayurvedic toothpowder. I pay attention to my gums and teeth, and after the whole exercise is done, I spend another 2 minutes massaging my gums with my thumb and index finger and finish up by rinsing in plain water after cleaning my tongue with a tongue scraper.
Scraping the tongue is again a very important part of oral care according to Ayurveda. The amount of deposition on the tongue gives you an idea of the toxins the body was able to trap – when you eat clean, whole food, you will have little to no deposition on the tongue. So the act of tongue scraping every morning is like a mini check – up / diagnosis.
You can make your own natural toothpowder with ingredients available in your kitchen with a little care and patience (a recipe is given below in a downloadable guide).
Do think about all of what I’ve written and try switching a little at a time to a more natural way of caring for your teeth and gums – I would love to hear from you about the positive impact this has had.
And Finally a better oral care substitute: An update
When this post was first published many years ago, I had included a toothpowder recipe which was made then with the bets of my knowledge. Since then, I have made many revisions to my original formulation based on my uopdated knowledge. I have also removed a few ingredients from the original recipe, as I believe they are not suitable for oral care.
We will be back with another post in teh enar future with an updated toothpowder recipe.