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Toothpaste What Hides Within

Brush, floss and rinse. Repeat. And repeat and repeat and repeat.

You put a lot of time and attention into your dental health. But there’s one thing you might have missed if you’re using toothpaste containing polyethylene microbeads: The tiny blue beads that may be hiding at the edge of your gums. Your hygienist can see them, though.

“My hygienists have told me they’ve seen little bits when they first go into the mouth,” says dentist Stephen Carlson, president elect of the Colorado Springs Dental Society, an adjunct of the American Dental Association. “By the time I see the patients, though, their teeth are clean and nice.”

The ingredient surfaces in a wide variety of products. From shaving cream to chewing gum to skin care products, they are often used as an abrasive, removing surface material such as dead skin or, in the case of teeth, plaque and debris.

Some Crest products, including Crest Pro Health, contain microbeads. All have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and still carry the ADA’s Seal of Acceptance (go to mouthhealthy.org for more information).

“At this time, clinically relevant dental health studies do not indicate they should be removed from toothpastes,” the ADA said in a 2014 statement.

In late March, Governor Hickenlooper signed a bill banning the material in Colorado by 2020. Illinois and New York have already ousted the material. Seventeen other states are considering banning the beads.

Environmental Impact

he problem with microbeads? They are so small that they slip through water treatment plant filters and make their way to waterways, including oceans and freshwater. And they are not biogradeable.

“Plastic is made from fossil fuel, from petroleum and natural gas,” says Anna Cummins, executive director of 5 Gyres, an organization on a mission to eliminate plastics pollution. “And plastic in the environment acts like a sponge for contaminants.

 “A concern from the environmental community is that when this plastic enters the water way – and that’s been shown – they have the potential to transfer these pollutants from the water into fish, which think it’s a food source, and the food chain. Humans are at the top of the food chain.” 

In the first global survey of plastics, 5 Gyres found that 270 metric tons of plastics exist in waterways. 

That said, the effects of microbeads on water – or even the human body – are unknown. 

“It’s just not a risk that’s worth taking,” Cummins says, “especially when there are clear alternatives to plastic microbeads. Natural alternatives.”

The Pros Weigh In

sk Dental Society President Carlson if he thinks beads in toothpaste are harmful to humans, and he pauses.

“You know, I guess, in my candid opinion, I really don’t think so,” says Carlson, who has been practicing since 2001. “I haven’t seen any research that it’s particularly toxic on the body. It’s just going to pass through.”

Many toothpastes simply don’t contain the beads, Carlson goes on. “And ultimately, it’s the mechanical abrasion of the toothbrush that does the job. Toothpaste aids, but it’s really the toothbrush abrasion.”

Proctor and Gamble, which owns Crest, has said that while the microbeads pose no health risk, the company planned to have them removed from the majority of their toothpastes by this past March. All will be eliminated by March 2016.

Additional Concerns

f the perils of microbeads weren’t enough, a chemical called triclosan is also under examination. Used in some toothpaste, as well as in toys, clothing, furniture, kitchenware, mouthwash and body washes, it’s designed to inhibit the growth of bacteria - which, in terms of dental issues, can prevent gingivitis. 

“That’s what we all want. A reduced bacterial count in the mouth. Supply it with a food source, sugar and carbohydrates, and it can cause damage, meaning cavities. For years we’ve been good in dentistry about giving diet counsel.”

In recent animal studies, though, the FDA-approved substance has been shown to alter hormone regulation. Other studies have demonstrated reductions in heart function (as much as 25 percent) in mice after just 20 minutes of exposure to the chemical. Grip strength of these mice also decreased by 18 percent. Other studies have looked into the possibility that triclosan aids in creating antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The FDA is “engaged in an ongoing scientific and regulatory review of this ingredient,” the organization says on its website. The “FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time.”

Carlson’s advice: Read the label. “The better people understand, the better they’ll accept whatever it is they need to do and just do it.”