Cornucopia blames regulatory loopholes for allowing the use of endocrine disruptors, inflammatory agents and suspected carcinogens in toothpastes. The report emphasizes that the mouth's oral mucosa "is one of the most absorbent areas of the body" and raises questions about putting in your mouth potentially toxic contaminants that may pass directly into the bloodstream.
The watchdog shared its study with Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). The Senators have introduced The Personal Care Products Safety Act that would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate the safety of ingredients in everyday personal care items, like deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste.
Currently all cosmetics and personal care products like toothpaste remain essentially unregulated, something the FDA readily admits:
"Firms and individuals who market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to make sure their products and ingredients … are safe under labeled and customary conditions for use and that they are properly labeled. Under U.S. law, cosmetics products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market. The one exception is color additives, … which must be approved for their intended use."
Rigot unpacks the impact of this gaping loophole. "It means," he said "that the FDA does not require impurities, including several potential contaminants such as the carcinogens 1,4-dioxane or ethylene oxide, to be listed as ingredients on the labels of personal care products because these toxic chemicals are produced during manufacturing. Even though technology exists to remove these contaminants (such as vacuum striping) many companies don't use it because regulators do not force them to do so."
The FDA restricts or prohibits just 11 synthetic ingredients in cosmetics. In contrast, the European Union (EU) prohibits more than 1,300 ingredients and restricts an additional 250 ingredients for use in personal care products. As a result, the U.S. lags significantly behind other countries on cosmetics safety, allowing many hazardous chemicals that are banned in Canada, Japan and Europe.
"If a company truly cared about the health of its customers, it would formulate its products not according to a given country's regulations, but rather to ensure the safest possible product with the highest quality ingredients regardless of where the products are sold," stated Mark Kastel, senior policy analyst at Cornucopia.
In fact, many toothpastes sold in Europe and other countries by American corporations are created with different, safer formulations for international markets than the same products sold in the U.S., to accommodate stricter cosmetics laws.
THE EVIDENCECornucopia spotlights the most problematic ingredients to be avoided, which are common in some of the most popular "natural" and premium brands as well as familiar mass-market brands like Colgate and Crest. These include synthetic preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate, which may contain a toxic, cancer-causing contaminant and artificial flavors and colors tied to behavioral problems in children.
Cornucopia found that a majority of well-known "natural" toothpaste brands, such as Tom's of Maine, Jason, Desert Essence and Kiss My Face, contain carrageenan, a non-nutritive thickening and emulsifying agent extracted from seaweed. "Peer-reviewed published research has established that food-grade carrageenan has the potential to cause intestinal inflammation, diabetes and even cancer," said Linley Dixon, PhD, scientist with Cornucopia.
Many toothpastes contain surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), or sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). Surfactants are chemicals responsible for the foaming action of the toothpaste, but they also interfere with the functioning of your taste buds by breaking up the phospholipids on your tongue.
SLS has even been linked to skin irritation and painful canker sores, with research suggesting an SLS-free toothpaste should be used for people with recurring sores.
However, one of the main problems with SLS is that the manufacturing process (ethoxylation) results in it being potentially contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogenic byproduct. The manufacturing process also releases carcinogenic volatile organic compounds into the environment. SLS is also registered as an insecticide and may have toxic effects to marine life, including fish, insects, and crustaceans.
Some animal studies showed that triclosan caused fetal bone malformations in mice and rats, which may hint at hormonal effects. Further, triclosan may interfere with a type of cell signaling in brain, heart, and other cells, such that researchers noted it "may not be worth potential risks."
The chemical has also been linked to cancer, with research finding triclosan may promote breast cancer progression.5 The state of Minnesota has already banned most uses of triclosan, but it's still widely sold across the US in toothpaste, hand soap, makeup, and more. Toothpaste appears to be one of the most potent delivery vehicles for the chemical, as research found people who brushed their teeth with Colgate Total had more than five times as much triclosan in their urine as those who did not.
Diethanolamine (DEA) is found in many foaming products such as toothpaste. It's a known hormone disrupter and can react with other ingredients to form a potential carcinogen called NDEA (N-nitrosodiethanolamine), which is readily absorbed through the skin and has been linked with cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver, and bladder.
Fluoride has long been heralded as the answer to decaying teeth, but it's been receiving increasing scrutiny in recent years, and for good reason. A groundbreaking study published in the journal Langmuir uncovered that the supposedly beneficial fluorapatite layer formed on your teeth from fluoride is a mere six nanometers thick. Not to mention, fluoride toothpaste is often the largest single source of fluoride intake for young children and is a major risk factor for disfiguring dental fluorosis. This is because children swallow a large amount of the paste that they put in their mouth.
Microbeads are tiny plastic pellets found in body washes, facial scrubs, toothpaste, and more. The microbeads go down your drain, through the filters at most wastewater treatment plants, and out into the environment. Plastic microbeads absorb toxins from the water and are eaten by a wide variety of marine life and, ultimately, by humans as well. There's good reason to boycott any toothpaste containing microbeads, even aside from the obvious environmental threat. Last year, a Dallas dental hygienist reported finding the microbeads in patients' teeth.
The bits were found in Crest microbead toothpaste and were getting trapped under patients' gums. This gives food and bacteria an entrance to your gum line, which could actually cause gum disease. Procter & Gamble, which makes Crest, reported they would stop using the microbeads by 2016 as a result. But while it seems the use of microbeads is on its way out, the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) is lobbying to have microbeads made from biodegradable plastic such as polylactic acid (PLA) remain in personal care products.
THE VERDICTIt's possible to make your own toothpaste and avoid many of the pitfalls of commercial varieties.
The first one includes coconut oil, which has been tested against strains of Streptococcus bacteria, which are common inhabitants of your mouth. Research has found that enzyme-modified coconut oil (treated with enzymes in a process similar to digestion) strongly inhibits the growth of most strains of Streptococcus bacteria, including symptoms of Streptococcus, an acid-producing bacterium that is a major cause of tooth decay. It is thought that the breaking down of the fatty coconut oil by the enzymes turns it into acids, which are toxic to certain bacteria.
Toothpaste that contains the naturally occurring cacao extract theobromine better repaired and re-mineralized exposed dentin (the tissue that makes up the bulk of your teeth below the enamel) than fluoride toothpaste, according to one study.
Cornucopia's scorecard rated Dr. Bronner's line of toothpaste at the top of the "five-brush" category (on a scale of 1-5), finding it to be among the best and safest products available in the market. "In addition to Dr. Bronner's, whose formulation is based on certified organic coconut oil, there are a number of other excellent products that depend primarily on organic ingredients and/or natural clay, that would contribute to oral health without posing unnecessary risks," concluded Rigot.
» CBS Minnesota: "Does Whitening Toothpaste Really Whiten Your Teeth?"
New York Times: "Why a Chemical Banned with Soap is Still in Your Toothpaste"