Just when you didn't think it was possible, a new cosmetic obsession has emerged. In the '80s it was permed hair, in the '90s, fake tans—today, it's teeth whitening. According to a 2004 American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry survey, teeth-whitening treatments have increased 300 percent since 1999, and whitening is the most commonly requested dental service—patients ask for it 29 percent of the time. Though boasting a smile whiter than snow may not look natural, it looks good, and the natural products industry is doing its best to keep up with the trend.
Among conventional whitening methods are in-office bleaching sessions and at-home techniques, which include whitening gels, strips and toothpastes. In a dentist's office, the procedure usually involves a professional applying either a protective gel to the gums or a rubber shield to protect the oral soft tissues. A bleaching agent, typically containing a high percentage of hydrogen peroxide (up to 30 percent), is then applied to the teeth, and a special light may be used to boost the efficacy of the agent. At-home bleaching trays and strips can contain up to 22 percent peroxide, and whitening toothpastes usually work through abrasive agents like silica and chalk (calcium carbonate) that polish off stains.
Though whitening techniques can be done safely, they can also cause problems. According to the American Dental Association, "Teeth can become sensitive during the period when you are using the bleaching solution. Some people also experience soft-tissue irritation—either from a tray that doesn't fit properly or from solution that may come in contact with the tissues." Currently, the ADA only gives its seal of approval to at-home treatments that contain 10 percent or less peroxide. Furthermore, the ADA does not approve in-office treatments that use lasers to enhance the whitening process.
Natural whitening toothpastes, on the other hand, are gentle on teeth and gums. But because natural whitening products don't rely on chemicals and unsafe amounts of hydrogen peroxide to get the job done, they will never be able to whiten teeth as quickly or effectively as their conventional counterparts. Natural whitening methods have their place, however, and many natural dental companies have experienced growth within the category.
"Natural whitening toothpastes are best for people who want to see results over an extended period of time, or for those who want to naturally and safely maintain the results they achieved through a conventional method," says Nancy Rosenzweig, chief executive officer of The Natural Dentist, an Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based natural tooth-care company. Rosenzweig asserts that using the harsh ingredients of conventional whitening methods could result in unpleasant side effects. "People can experience anything from mild discomfort to serious problems. For example, consumers are overusing at-home whitening kits. The trays don't usually custom fit your mouth, which can cause the solution to burn your gums. What's worse, if you use these treatments while you have a cavity, the peroxide can seep into the pulp of the tooth, and you'll end up needing a root canal," she says. The Natural Dentist's whitening toothpaste, on the other hand, contains a fine grade of silica and works by gently and safely abrading stains caused by coffee, tea, wine and other darkening substances. The product has become one of the company's best sellers. "Last year, our whitening toothpaste sales increased by 150 percent," Rosenzweig says.
EcoDent, a natural tooth-care company that carries a whitening toothpaste with the highest baking soda content in the category, agrees that natural tooth whitening can only brighten so much, but that it does so in a much safer, gentler way and therefore does not carry with it the potential for dangerous side effects that conventional products do. "Baking soda is our main ingredient because it's known to lighten stains on its own, and when it effervesces, it penetrates the microholes in the teeth, thereby remineralizing them and making them stronger. It also helps reduce plaque formation and bacteria binding," says Santosh Krinsky, president of Twin Lakes, Wis.-based Lotus Brands Inc., the company that owns the EcoDent brand.
More importantly, although baking soda is abrasive enough to polish off tooth-stains, it is also the least erosive cleaning product on the market. "Silica, chalk, and calcium minerals used in many whitening toothpastes are very abrasive. When used in high amounts, they not only brush away plaque, film and tartar, but also tooth enamel. This will weaken the teeth and promote decay because tooth enamel is the first line of defense against bacteria infection. If bacteria can penetrate the enamel, it will attack the soft inner pulp of the tooth and then the root, which could result in the need for a root canal," Krinsky says. He says EcoDent's powder is 7.8 times less abrasive to the teeth than conventional brands. Sales of EcoDent's whitening tooth powder have increased by 29 percent over the last year.
Even without abrasive or whitening agents, natural toothpastes can brighten teeth using other ingredients. Xlear, a xylitol products company, produces a toothpaste containing a high amount of xylitol, which is extremely effective in fighting bacteria. "The most important thing you can do to maintain white teeth is to keep plaque buildup down, and the way you do that is by fighting off bacteria in the mouth. Bacteria flourish by taking minerals from food and changing them into a form that can seep into the crystal-like structure of the teeth. It then develops into plaque and hardens into tartar, which is darker in color and dulls the appearance of the teeth," says Brian Craig, director of international sales and marketing for Orem, Utah-based Xlear. Xylitol prevents bacteria binding and growth because it is a five-carbon sugar, and bacteria can only break down six-carbon sugars. Once xylitol adheres to bacteria's binding sites, the bacteria cannot break the xylitol down. This creates two results: It starves the bacteria by not allowing them to consume any other sugars, and it prevents the bacteria from making the biofilm that sticks to teeth and gums. Therefore, the body is able to easily wash bacteria away though its normal saliva production process.
Another way the natural tooth-care category can benefit from the whitening trend is to develop and market products that will help soothe gum irritation and heal mouth sensitivity caused by conventional whitening treatments. "Our products, especially our oral rinse, have a reputation for being effective and gentle," Rosenzweig says. In fact, according to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Clinical Dentistry, the Natural Dentist's oral rinse proved as effective as the leading national brands of mouth rinses without using any of the harsh chemicals, alcohols, artificial sweeteners, dyes or preservatives of mainstream products. "Using a natural whitening toothpaste in combination with a healing mouth wash is the perfect way to maintain results achieved though a conventional whitening treatment and also heal the irritation it may have caused," Rosenzweig says.
While it's true that your shoppers are concerned with looking good, they also count wellness and health as top priorities. Natural whitening toothpastes can help consumers achieve the aesthetic results they want without compromising their wellbeing and will increase your HABA sales in the process. And that's enough to give you both something to smile about.
Christine Spehar is a freelance writer with very white teeth in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 34, 36