All smiles? The rise of natural toothpaste

From the US to South Korea, natural toothpaste brands are suddenly cleaning up. They claim to be better for you as well as the planet – but not everyone is happy.
rise of natural toothpaste

It turns out that buying good natural toothpaste is less straightforward than it sounds. Spend 15 minutes browsing natural toothpastes online and hundreds of brands show up. Lots are packed with ingredients that might seem more suited to art projects (charcoal and clay) or making cakes (baking soda and salt). There is ‘conscious’ toothpaste, ‘cruelty-free’ toothpaste, ‘foam-textured’ toothpaste. 

To be sure, the natural oral care market feels fresher than ever. So fresh that Lenny Kravitz just launched a ‘science and wellness toothpaste’ called Twice. Fancy brushing with a line from Kanye West? He’s reportedly pivoting to cosmetics, too. Reach Bubble from South Korea is a water-free paste – one pump creates micro-bubbles that clean every bit of pulp, dentin, enamel and cementum (what teeth are made out of). Noice, launched in New York last year, is a ‘botanical’ toothpaste that comes in recyclable glass bottles. And ditching paste altogether, Bite makes oral care tablets that are 100% vegan.

‘On what makes a good natural toothpaste, dentists agree to disagree. In the US, for example, not a single toothpaste is Food and Drug Administration-certified.’

While brands from the US and Europe are leading the way, India is close behind. Today, herbal and natural toothpaste make up 20% of the country’s $2bn oral-care market (compared to almost zero a decade ago), with yoga guru Ramadev’s herbal goods company Patanjali Ayurved one of the main players. The market is also taking off in South Korea, following a recall scandal in 2017 involving major toothpaste brands using banned chemicals in their products. Consumers there are now demanding transparency from toothpaste manufacturers. One brand responded with a formula made with pure salt from France and green tea extract from Jeju Island. Does it get any fresher? 

Either way, natural toothpaste isn’t new. Tom Chappell founded Tom’s of Maine in 1970, offering a non-polluting laundry detergent called Clearlak; a natural toothpaste – free of chemicals and flavoured with spearmint, cinnamon and peppermint – followed in 1975. Since then, natural toothpaste has evolved and today it’s everywhere. The word ‘natural’ has different definitions depending on who you ask, but like many natural health and beauty products, these toothpastes tend to be free from toxic ingredients such as triclosan, microbeads and parabens. They are generally formulated without foaming agents, artificial colours and sweeteners. Along with ethical and sustainable concerns, experts say there are medical reasons to avoid these ingredients. 

On what makes a good natural toothpaste, dentists agree to disagree. In the US, for example, not a single toothpaste is Food and Drug Administration-certified. Just like with food products, labelling a toothpaste as ‘natural’ isn’t an indicator of anything binding; meanwhile, if a toothpaste is certified by the US Department of Agriculture, ingredients have to follow a set of legal guidelines. The health benefits of most toothpastes are assessed by the American Dental Association. Elizabeth Lowe, the 34-year-old founder of the bathroom and oral care brand Naked Company, says the lack of regulation is worrying. ‘If your shampoo doesn’t work, so what – you might have a bad hair day. But if your toothpaste doesn’t work, it could cause discomfort,’ she explains. ‘The mouth absorbs everything, just like a sponge.’ 

Naked Company, launched in late 2019, sells toothpaste tablets ‘without the nasties’ and extensively details its ingredients on its website. Although Elizabeth can wax lyrical about all things natural – and don’t get her started on fluoride versus fluoride-free – what she says carries weight. Unlike many founders of natural health and beauty brands, she has a background in science (she still works in the pharmaceuticals industry full time, running Naked Company as her side-hustle). And it’s the lack of regulation that leaves the most bitter taste in her mouth. ‘So many natural toothpaste brands popping up right now are completely ignoring the science,’ she says. Or, as another founder of a natural toothpaste brand, who asks Courier not to publish their name, says more bluntly: ‘One of the bestselling natural toothpaste brands does zero for your dental health but, hey, the packaging looks cool!’ 

What, then, explains the boom? The ‘clean’ lifestyle movement is impacting every section of the beauty industry, yet only recently have people started to take a stand against the long and impenetrable ingredient lists on toothpaste tubes.

‘If your shampoo doesn’t work, so what – you might have a bad hair day. But if your toothpaste doesn’t work, it could cause discomfort. The mouth absorbs everything.’

Toothpaste has seen a huge shift away from bricks-and-mortar stores to e-commerce in the past couple of years – even more so since the pandemic – giving many of the newer, digital-first natural brands an important competitive advantage. The toothpaste market as a whole was valued at around $26bn in 2018 and is projected to reach $37bn by 2024. Despite the slow start, natural toothpaste is already one of the fastest growing sectors of the beauty industry, and that doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon with health and wellness continuing its march into the mainstream. 

While baking bread was becoming a thing during lockdown, Courier tried making its own natural toothpaste. The internet is full of instructions about how easy it is; one recipe said to warm coconut oil and mix it with a kind of clay powder before adding drops of spearmint oil. Yet a thick, grey slime emerged that tasted like a bucket of cold snails. 

Someone who put considerably more effort into coming up with a formula is Eric Buss. In 2012, he started looking at what went into the toothpaste he used at home. ‘It didn’t take a dentist to realise some of the ingredients were, at best, not very healthy,’ he says. Three years on – or ‘10,000 hours of detective work later,’ he says – he released Davids, a ‘high performance, zero-waste’ natural toothpaste. Today it’s one of the bestselling natural toothpastes on Amazon, with revenues set to double by the end of the year, although the recyclable metal tubes are also stocked in thousands of physical stores. 

‘There are a lot more players than when we started out. We’re one of the few natural toothpaste brands of a certain scale that hasn’t been acquired by one of the big multinationals yet,’ he says, citing Colgate’s acquisition of the ‘naturally friendly’ oral care brand Hello in January. ‘The competition is fierce because the market is huge. But over time, the copycats will get found out.’

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