Sure, you’ve heard of the Paleo diet, which at its most simplified asks you to eschew common carbohydrates in favor of channeling your inner caveman and subsisting on only the foods that once nourished our hunter-gatherer ancestors. But what about Paleo toothpaste?
In recent years, more and more Paleo followers have shunned conventional hygiene products like soaps, shampoos, and toothpastes in favor of alternative offerings boasting all-natural ingredients, and they’re not alone. Recently refocused attention around suspect chemicals in beauty products has left many, Paleo devotees or not, on the hunt for all-natural alternatives, sometimes without necessarily knowing too much about the actual effect of what’s in them. The buzz around triclosan, a recently banned antibacterial agent that is being phased out of hand soaps but remains in some toothpastes, has left many looking to even DIY their dental care, like natural beauty lover Shailene Woodley, who likes to “make everything from my own toothpaste to my own body lotions and face oils. It’s an entire lifestyle. It’s appealing to my soul.”
Not quite ready to mix up your own batch of toothpaste, but curious about what lies beyond the dental care aisle at your local drugstore? Look no further than your Instagram feed, where at least one all-natural, GMO-free, Paleo-approved brand implores you to #GiveMeTheDirt, in the form of the Dirt Trace Mineral Tooth Brushing Powder, that is.
The Dirt toothpaste, as it is more commonly referred to — though yes, it is a powder rather than a paste — is made by the Dirt Paleo Personal Care, a company whose About page proudly proclaims it was founded “to start a revolution.” Because willingly dipping your toothbrush into a jar of dirt sounds nothing less than revolutionary. (Unless, of course, you’re one of those unique — and likely iron-deficient — people who crave dirt.) But can it actually clean your teeth and prevent cavities? Experts are skeptical.
“The big thing that strikes me all the time when I look at these [alternative toothpastes] is that they’re missing fluoride,” says Mark Wolff, DDS, associate dean for predoctoral clinical education and professor and chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at New York University College of Dentistry. “People who are trying to go natural, they come into my office with mouths full of decay, and that scares me. We’ve taken away their protection.”
Dr. Kim Harms, a national spokesperson for the American Dental Association, seconds that notion. “The number one big star, the ingredient that can reduce 25 percent of cavities, is fluoride,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “That’s what you always want to look for in your toothpaste.”
So why did the Dirt leave it out? “We eschew fluoride in our products, as one of our core beliefs in maintaining good health is to source the nutrition your body needs from whole foods, minerals, and herbs,” a representative from the company told Yahoo Beauty, citing European countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Holland, where water has never been treated with fluoride (the reasoning there seem to be cost and ethics based, however).
“Studies, in general, indicate that fluoride is per se one of nature’s principal aging factors. Furthermore, consistent consumption of fluoride inhibits proper function of the thyroid gland and all enzyme systems, making weight reduction more difficult and is thought to be partially responsible for the abnormal height of some young people, as well as a contributor to very broad bottoms,” the Dirt’s rep claimed to Yahoo Beauty. “Lastly, it can damage the immune system, contributing to serious disorders such as scleroderma, lupus, and various forms of arthritis, which ultimately increase the likelihood of cancer and other degenerative diseases.”
According to the brand spokesperson, since “there isn’t a speck of synthetics in the Dirt, there is no obtrusive element being introduced into the oral cavity, which allows it to carry out its natural healing processes such as enamel regeneration and cavity reparation. Processes which are often stymied due to unnatural chemicals.”
The American Dental Association notes that fluoride is like any other nutrient; it is safe and effective when used appropriately.
The Dirt toothpaste does not contain fluoride but has seven other predominantly organic ingredients (extra fine bentonite clay, organic Saigon cinnamon, baking soda, organic myrrh gum powder, organic nutmeg, sweet orange essential oil, and organic cardamom essential oil) that satisfied users claim leaves their mouths feeling fresh and clean like never before.
Brushing your teeth with clay or baking soda is far from a new idea: Baking soda has long been touted as a way to brighten teeth, while Montmorillonite, a green clay from the small town of Montmorillon in the Poitou-Charentes region of western France, has been cited as a must-have, secret ingredient of purifying facial masks, chemical-free deodorant, and homemade toothpaste, among other things. The bentonite clay found in the Dirt toothpaste, specifically, is a mild abrasive strong enough to aid in removing plaque from your teeth, but not so strong that it will remove the enamel along with it — an important detail.
“We have to make sure that toothpastes aren’t too abrasive, or we will wear the surface off,” says Dr. Wolff. The potential issue with using a clay to do that, however, he explains, is that “clay actually absorbs contaminates. Thus when you go buy clay from certain sources, you don’t know whether the clay has high lead, high mercury. It could be helpful for cleaning teeth, but that isn’t to say that it’s necessarily going to be safe.”
Clay and baking soda aren’t the only age-old natural remedies found in the Dirt toothpaste. Myrrh gum powder and myrrh oils are “probably one of the very oldest components that you can think about for taking care of mouth sores, mouth ulcers, for treatment of all sorts of issues,” says Dr. Wolff. “It’s been around since the seventh century.”
While many of the other natural ingredients comprising the Dirt toothpaste may read more like a cookie recipe than an oral-care product, “some of them, like cinnamon and nutmeg, might have some positive health effects,” says Dr. Harms, “and anything beneficial to your overall health is going to directly benefit your dental health.”
“Cinnamon is an interesting product,” adds Dr. Wolff. “We love the way cinnamon smells, but it actually contains some oils, and these essential oils may be effective in killing bacteria, though there is really no science behind that.”
Other essential oils, like tea tree oil or the sweet orange and cardamom oils contained in the Dirt toothpaste, “have been shown to have some antibacterial qualities,” he explains. “But it’s interesting to see it used in toothpaste. I’m always surprised what people are willing to mix together, just because it came out of a tree. I just don’t know where the evidence comes from.”
What does have plenty of evidence surrounding it, however, is the all-important fluoride. And as the ADA carefully monitors the amounts that can be included, when it comes to toothpaste, “fluoride is the way to go. It’s kind of our hero in the dental world,” explains Dr. Harms. “The long-term evidence is there: brushing your teeth twice a day, cleaning between your teeth once a day, and visiting a dentist on a regular basis is a proven prescription for oral health. All you have to do is travel a little bit around the world to places where people aren’t doing that to see the impact. It’s such a simple, proven formula.”