Last year, I wrote about the incredible number of choices in your supermarket's dairy case. What was once a simple choice between “sweet” milk and buttermilk has exploded into more flavors than Donny Osmond has teeth.
Speaking of teeth: the same thing has happened on the toothpaste aisle. Again, it used to be so easy. We had Colgate and Crest. Colgate toothpaste was bright white, while Crest was light blue. Both were loaded with fluoride and seemed to get our teeth nice and clean. Sure, there were a few other brands like Pepsodent and Gleem, but they also-rans.
Then game the gimmicks. As a kid, I loved Stripe. I always wondered how it always came out of the tube, perfectly striped. It tasted minty, too. When I was a teen, Ultra Brite was introduced, and its commercials promised it would give me “sex appeal.” I stocked up on it, but it didn't work out as advertised. Judging from the ladies, my sex appeal was overruled by acne and awkwardness.
Somehow I've managed to keep most of my teeth intact. An army of dentists and their assistants lecture me on brushing, flossing, and avoiding gumball machines. Those machines might as well have a sign that says, “Want to chip a tooth? Just insert a quarter here, and try to chew one of these. Expiration date: 2004.
As I rummaged through the toothpaste shelves last week, I was overwhelmed by the choices. Colgate and Crest are still there, although their humble original flavors are overwhelmed by new and improved versions like “Sensitivity,” “Enamel Health,” “Cavity Protection,” “Whitening,” “MaxFresh,” “Foam,” “Bubble Fruit,” “3D,” “Detoxify,” ”Complete,” “Pro-Health,” “Tartar Control,” and “Charcoal.”
“Charcoal?” Wait, what? When I think of white, healthy teeth, charcoal is not the first thing that comes to mind. Mama never said, “Son, your teeth are looking yellow. Go find some charcoal to rub on 'em.”
The “activated charcoal” toothpaste is dark gray in color. It looks like something you would put in your mouth only on a dare. The charcoal mouthwash looks like cola. My dentist friend Dr. Mark McOmie tells me that charcoal paste and rinses became popular in Germany, and have now spread to America. When Procter and Gamble (Crest) and Johnson & Johnson (Colgate) got wind of the charcoal trend, they jumped right in. Dr. McOmie said the toothpaste is abrasive and may remove surface stains on your teeth. Speaking as someone who was described as “abrasive”as a teen, that's not exactly a compliment. In fact, while the charcoal may provide short-term whitening effects, it could actually harm the tooth's enamel in the long run.
“But Dr. McOmie,” I asked. “If one of those pharmaceutical reps gave you a barrel full of charcoal toothpaste samples, wouldn't you give them away in one of those cute little goodie bags?” “No sir,” he replied. “If it isn't backed up by science, I can't put my name on it. And while this may be a fun fad, there's no science to back it up.”
My dentist friend urges caution about the unproven products. “People shouldn't be paying big bucks for things that are no better than your teeth than plain old baking soda,” he said.
I spotted a mouthwash called “Smart Mouth.” (That's something else I’ve been called a few times). The gimmick? As you pour it out, you mix two solutions out of a double spout. I guess they couldn't do that at the factory. Seems like too much work to me.
Dr. McOmie also mentioned a four-step toothpaste, with four tubes representing each step of the process. Frankly, when brushing your teeth has more steps than deep-cleaning your car's headlights, I'm out.
There are a few worthwhile products amid the crowd of miracle products on the toothpaste shelf. Tom's of Maine touts all-natural ingredients. “Tom's is very good,” Dr. McOmie said. “It has a lot of essential oils and herbs, just like they advertise.”
But what does the dentist use, and what does he recommend? “I'd have to say Colgate Total,” Dr. McOmie said. “It's got the right stuff for cleaning.” How about whitening? “Very few over-the-counter products make much difference,” he said. “They make a lot of shallow promises.”
So be wary of all the pricey new choices that promise to make your teeth sparkle. Every few years, they come out with the next big thing. In the 1970s, some thought fluoride toothpaste would be a game-changer. But it hasn't solved every problem, and your dentist is still in business.
Mama always told me baking soda was the best (and cheapest) option for white teeth and fresh breath. Even now, my friend the dentist confirms what I should have known all along: always listen to Mama.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best stories. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.