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The Importance of INACTIVE Toothpaste Ingredients

The active ingredients of toothpastes often hog the spotlight but the inactive ingredients are equally as important due to their wide range of additional benefits. Not only that but they also happen to be the main differentiator among various different toothpastes.

different types of toothpastes

Consumers often look at the active ingredients on the toothpaste label and ignore the inactive ingredients. This leads a couple of people to assume that all toothpastes are the same and that they may even be a scam.

But, that couldn't be further from the truth because because those inactive components provide a wide range of benefits and effects when you brush with them.

Effects of toothpaste inactive ingredients:

Whitening abrasives

All whitening toothpastes contain abrasives which help to mechanically remove stains from teeth. It works by giving the paste texture so when you brush, it can physically scrub off the staining. An analogy would be scrubbing a dinner plate.

Examples of whitening abrasives:

  • Silica

  • Hydrated silica

  • Calcium carbonate

  • Charcoal

  • Sea salt

  • Mica

  • Sodium silicate

If your toothpaste lacks an abrasive, it would not be able to remove extrinsic stains as effectively and would be no different than brushing with plain water.

Surfactants (cleansing agents)

Surfactants in toothpastes aid in the cleansing of teeth by facilitating the removal of food, debris, and stains by wetting the enamel surface. They are more commonly known as detergents and you can find them in regular soaps, shampoos, and etc.

Examples of surfactants:

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

  • Cocamidopropyl betaine

  • Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine

  • Diethanolamine

  • Potassium cocoate

  • Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate

  • Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate

Surfactants often work synergistically with whitening abrasives, thus making them more effective. Without them, they wouldn't be able to "whiten" your teeth as well.

Chemical whitening

Unlike abrasive whitening, chemical whitening of teeth involve ingredients which can "bleach" the stains out of teeth. This is the type of whitening which most people think of when they hear the word.

Examples of chemical whiteners:

  • Hydrogen peroxide

  • Phthalimidoperoxycaproic acid (PAP)

Of course when toothpastes contain one of these two ingredients, they will always be much more effective than a product that uses abrasives alone.


Toothpastes with anti-tartar agents can help prevent or reduce the amount of tartar (calculus) formation on teeth. These can be extremely helpful if you notice the calcium build up more frequently than your significant other or peers.

Examples of anti-tartar agents:

  • Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate

  • Tetrasodium pyrophosphate

  • Zinc phosphate

  • Calcium pyrophosphate

  • Disodium pyrophosphate

An additional perk of including these ingredients is that they often help to prevent staining. The reason being that calculus tends to absorb and accumulate stains which is how some people end up with black tartar.

Malodor suppressors

Zinc based ingredients can help suppress malodor such as bad breath.

Examples of malodor suppressors:

  • Zinc oxide

  • Zinc phosphate

These are usually only found in toothpastes that are specifically meant for bad breath (halitosis).


Bioadhesives in toothpaste can help extend the working time for other toothpaste ingredients. Essentially, they help both active and inactive ingredients stick to the surfaces of the teeth thereby increasing the time they work. This is important because saliva will often wash away all substances on the teeth thus decreasing their working time.

Examples of bioadhesives:

  • Polyacrylic acid (carbomer)

  • PVM/MA copolymer

You may not find these ingredients as often since they are rarer and are only used in more premium toothpastes.

Fluoride exponentiators

Some inactive toothpaste ingredients such as sodium lactate can help make fluoride more effective. What it does is help increase fluoride uptake on the surfaces of the teeth.

On the flip side, there are also ingredients which can decrease the efficacy of fluoride such as SLS. Yes, you read that correctly, surfactants have a tendency to reduce fluoride uptake on the surfaces of your teeth. For this reason alone, a SLS-free paste is actually superior at least when it comes to preventing cavities.


It is important to not gloss over the inactive ingredients on a toothpaste label because they provide a lot of benefits which the active ones do not. This is why carefully selecting a toothpaste is an important part of preventative dentistry, at least in the opinion of our dentists in Long Island City.


David Chen 200 x 200.jpg

About the author: Dr David Chen, DDS

Hello, I'm Dr Chen and I'm an actively practicing dentist in Long Island City, NY. I graduated from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in 2016 but prior to going to dental school I was already working in the dental field. It's been more than a decade since I first got to know dentistry and let me tell you, time flies by quickly. Since then I've developed a fondness for writing, which is how this all got started!

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Medical Disclaimer:

This blog is purely meant for information purposes and should not be used as medical advice. Each situation in your mouth is unique and complex. It is not possible to give advice nor diagnose any oral conditions based on text nor virtual consultations. The best thing to do is to go in person to see your dentist for an examination and consultation so that you can receive the best care possible.

The purpose of all of this oral health information is to encourage you to see your dentist and to inform you of what you may expect during your visit. Due to the unfortunate nature of dentistry, there isn't really any true home remedies that will get rid of dental problems. Roughly 99.99% of them require in-person intervention by a healthcare professional.

Hint: That is the reason why you can't eliminate seeing dentists in your life!

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