An illustration of a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush.
Illustration: Alexander Wells-Folio Art

If you’ve been concerned about your toothpaste having triclosan—an antibacterial that helps prevent gingivitis—the good news is that it’s essentially gone from the market, though it’s still technically permitted.

Its removal is probably due to widespread circulation of research suggesting that triclosan may disrupt some thyroid hormones and immunity, and contribute to antibiotic resistance overall, says Tunde Akinleye, a chemist in CR’s food safety division. (Triclosan was banned from hand soaps and body washes in 2017.)

Until a few months ago, Colgate Total still contained the ingredient. But it has now been updated to a triclosan-free formula, renamed Colgate Total SF.

That’s good news for consumers, Akinleye says, “because triclosan is just not worth the risk.” So if you have a tube of the old formula in your bathroom, we suggest tossing it. Wondering what else may be in your toothpaste?

Here are a few words worth paying attention to.

More on Dental health

ADA Seal of Acceptance
A toothpaste bearing this seal from the American Dental Association must be safe and effective at whatever its label claims. It also must contain fluoride, must have no ingredients that “cause or contribute to” decay, and must not harm teeth.

Abrasives
Calcium carbonate and modified silica help to remove food debris and surface stains.

Baking Soda
Toothpaste with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) shows some promise for reducing plaque and may slightly decrease gum bleeding from gingivitis compared with toothpaste that doesn’t have it.

Desensitizers
Used regularly, ingredients such as sodium citrate, casein phosphopeptide, and potassium nitrate may help relieve uncomfortable sensitivity. They “are effective in some people and not in others,” says Richard Niederman, D.M.D., professor at the NYU College of Dentistry.

Fluoride
This active ingredient comes in several different forms (including sodium fluoride and stannous fluoride) and helps protect teeth from decay. “Fluoride is effective at reducing cavities by 20 to 30 percent,” Niederman says. Stannous fluoride may also help with sensitivity and gum inflammation. You can buy fluoride-free toothpaste, but it probably won’t help reduce cavities.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
SLS is called a detergent, but it has little cleaning power. Instead, it creates foam to help circulate the toothpaste into nooks and crannies. Some people may get canker sores or experience peeling of mouth tissue in as little as one use. If you’re among them, look for SLS-free or “non-foaming” toothpaste.

Whiteners
Basic whiteners include hydrogen peroxide, which chemically lightens teeth, and polyphosphates, such as sodium hexametaphosphate, said to help with enamel staining.

But some experts say these aren’t concentrated enough or in contact with tooth surfaces long enough to make a noticeable difference. And polyphosphates may cause mouth irritations.

Xylitol
Some small studies suggest that toothpaste with both fluoride and xylitol may be better at cavity prevention than a fluoride-only product. But experts say that even brushing several times daily is unlikely to deliver enough xylitol to provide a benefit.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the June 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.