The wellness industry is coming for your teeth

By Sophie Aubrey for The Age

‘she’s all about making oral hygiene “sexy” rather than just a medical need’

Sophie writes about Dr Rita Trak’s dental philosophy

For most of us, tooth-brushing is like washing the dishes: it’s just one of our daily chores. Now, the humdrum activity is being reframed as an act of self-care, with businesses using the seductive language of the wellness and beauty industries.

Many of these toothpastes are marketed as all-natural with “no nasties” and creative flavours (think cinnamon and clove, or apple mint).

Most noticeably, they are squeezed into sleek, luxury-feel packaging designed with the bathroom “shelfie” in mind – and a glamorous price to match, usually costing $10-$20 (a typical 100 gram tube of supermarket toothpaste costs about $5). It happened with sunscreen, and our teeth are the next frontier.

This is no longer simply brushing your teeth. This is “oral care”. But leading dentists aren’t entirely convinced.

The glow-up of toothpaste

The trend has been steadily rising: cult Australian beauty brand Aesop released its own “dentifrice” back in 2017. Media personality Kendall Jenner has been backing a US dental company called Moon since 2019.

Aesop’s $15 tube.
Aesop’s $15 tube.

Even dental giant Colgate has been making moves. It bought natural toothpaste brand Hello last year and recently launched a shiny new Gen Z-friendly line called CO. in the US with pared-back Colgate branding. In Australia this month, it rolled out a “Smile for Good” range featuring 99.7 per cent natural ingredients and recyclable tubes. These all join high-end established names like Marvis, Buly 1803 and Theodent (which costs about $130).

Several Australian start-ups are now making oral health products. Melbourne-based Georgia Geminder launched Gem in 2020 and it was quickly picked up by beauty retailer Mecca. The toothpaste is marketed as non-toxic and designed for Instagram “shareability”.

“People dread brushing their teeth and going to the dentist. We want to celebrate the routine and make it powerful and pleasurable,” Geminder, 27, says.

“If we’re spending a premium on your face moisturiser or lipstick, we should be treating our mouths in the same way.”

Self-described “wellness addict” Prue Rocchi, from Melbourne, last week released her all-natural toothpaste ROCC, with biodegradable tubes, after finding other brands looked “pretty daggy” on her bathroom sink.

And Tash Scutts, from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, launched her botanical toothpaste Lovebyt in 2018 and has observed a growing buzz around teeth. More people are investing in treatments like whitening, Invisalign and veneers.

“It’s oral beauty but it’s also a whole wellness lifestyle,” Scutts says.“[Toothpaste is] something we use twice a day but it’s usually so unattractive we have to put it in a drawer when people come over.”

‘Fluoride-free’ on the rise

While Australian dentists are all for more people prioritising dental care by turning it into a self-care ritual, there are concerns that it has strayed too far from the medical and set in motion a surge in “fluoride-free” toothpastes. All brands mentioned above, aside from Colgate and Marvis, forgo fluoride.

“I haven’t seen many newer brands popping up that have fluoride,” says dentist Dr Mikaela Chinotti, the Australian Dental Association’s oral health promoter.

The peak dental body recommends Australians use toothpaste with fluoride. It’s widely considered the cornerstone of tooth decay prevention and the best way to remineralise and strengthen teeth.

An epidemiological study found that over the second half of last century, the prevalence of tooth decay plunged by more than 75 per cent, crediting this mostly to fluoride use.

“It’s important to … choose products based on proven effectiveness, not because it looks good on your shelf,” Chinotti says.

Dentist Dr James Fernando researches tooth decay at the University of Melbourne and says the lack of fluoride in many new products is “an immediate concern” because when purchasing a toothpaste, it’s the main active ingredient people should be looking for.

Anti-fluoride groups have long claimed that it can affect the bones and brain, and cause dental fluorosis (little flecks on tooth enamel). Fernando stresses that decades of scientific research has shown that fluoride is completely safe in the small doses used in toothpaste. It is only harmful when large amounts are ingested, which is why we don’t swallow toothpaste and why young children use toothpaste with a lower concentration.

The creators of fluoride-free toothpastes, including Lovebyt, ROCC and Gem, say they are catering to consumer demand and that using fluoride is a personal choice.

Gem currently uses a fluoride alternative called hydroxyapatite and cites research on its website. Fernando says that while promising, the few studies that exist are not robust.

While Lovebyt and ROCC don’t plan to start using fluoride, Gem’s founder acknowledges some customers prefer it and says “never say never”.

Some chemicals in mainstream toothpaste have raised concerns in the past, Fernando says, such as antimicrobial triclosan, which was phased out after animal studies found it may disrupt hormones, and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a foaming agent that certain patients find irritating.

Fernando says while being more natural is great, not all chemicals are toxic and many even derive from natural sources. Fluoride itself is a natural mineral.

He adds that a lot of natural toothpastes also contain ingredients that have theoretical benefits but are untested clinically and may be incompatible when combined.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration is only responsible for regulating toothpastes that make specific health claims, such as preventing tooth decay. The rest are classed as cosmetics.

Not all new boutique oral care businesses banish fluoride. Natural brand Tooth Chews, launched in 2020 by Sunshine Coast dentist Rob Wood, includes it. The company sells toothpaste in tablet form, which is more eco-friendly, and will be releasing a paste later this year.

Wood says he hopes to fill a gap in the market for chic toothpastes that also tick the science boxes.

“We wanted to do what we know would still benefit oral health but for people who don’t want to use Colgate,” he says.

Dentist Dr Rita Trak opened the Dental & Skin Clinic in Melbourne’s south-east in February, saying she’s all about making oral hygiene “sexy” rather than just a medical need, but she worries about the anti-fluoride narrative being perpetuated by some businesses that have a similar philosophy.

The dos and don’ts of choosing a toothpaste

  • Ensure fluoride is present. If choosing to use a toothpaste without fluoride, be sure to discuss this with your dentist
  • Choose low fluoride children’s toothpaste for kids aged 18 months to 6 years
  • Select your toothpaste based on your dental needs not on the appearance of the packaging
  • For individuals with sensitivities, flavour-free and low-foaming toothpastes are available
  • If still unsure, the Australian Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval can be found on some products to provide you with confidence that they have been reviewed by an expert panel of dentists. And as always, for tailored advice, talk to your dentist about what toothpaste is best for you

Tips by Dr Mikaela Chinotti, dentist and oral health promoter of the Australian Dental Association

“If someone doesn’t want to use fluoride for their own reasons or beliefs that’s fine, but to spruik the message that fluoride is bad for you … that’s where it’s dangerous,” Trak says. “I’ve already seen the consequences.”

She says the trend is confusing for consumers, and she likens it to promoting an all-natural, chemical-free sunscreen without any science to prove it helps prevent skin cancer.

Chinotti says people can choose a fluoride-free toothpaste but urges them to be aware of the risks and regularly see their dentist.

Fernando says he won’t recommend a toothpaste until there is evidence behind its formula.

“I’m an environmentalist at heart … [but] for something you’re using twice a day, I would say be careful, it’s not necessarily the safest option.

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