Hey kids, wash your teeth off with soap
Whenever she gets the chance, Dawn Light washes her 7-year-old daughter’s mouth out with soap. She’s not a particularly strict mom; she just believes soap cleans teeth better than toothpaste.
In recent years, several soap products have come on the market as lathery alternatives to toothpaste. They’ve attracted a small but growing number of customers who believe detergent-free soap is safer on teeth than paste.
Using soap to clean teeth isn’t an entirely new idea. According to Dr. Scott Swank, the curator at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, toothpaste vied with tooth powders for market supremacy during the first half of the 20th century. Manufacturers sold the powders in tin containers or in a cake-like form that they called “soap.” Toothpaste eventually won out because most people found it easier to use--no need to add water--and it was sold in tubes rather than tins, which the military needed during World War II.
Five years ago, Karen Adler decided to try to reintroduce tooth soap to the American masses. A few years earlier, seeking a way to make some money while raising her two young daughters, the Oregon woman founded Healthnbeauty.com, a member-based network for women that reviewed health and beauty products. At the time, she said, she was searching for a “natural dental protocol” when she came across Dr. Gerald F. Judd’s book, “Good Teeth Birth to Death: the Perfect Prescription for the Teeth.” Among other things, Judd concluded that soap was better for the teeth than toothpaste.
“I started using Ivory soap on my teeth,” she said. “But I got kind of sick of it.”
So she created a soap of her own, by mixing vegetable oils and essential oils to make the soap more palatable. She sold the soap as food-processed shreds so that costumers could easily pick out one serving and rub it against their teeth.
Today she has her own company, Vitality Products, to sell the tooth cleanser and other health products.
Most customers now buy the newer liquid formula. They’re advised to squeeze a few drops onto their teeth, thoroughly brush, and then spit. It’s not that different from brushing with toothpaste, except a few moments after spitting, the mouth tastes, well, like soap, with a twist of citrus, peppermint or one of the eight other flavors (including chocolate) that Adler offers.
For Adler, a critical difference between pastes and her product is that she does not use silica and glycerin, which she says harm the teeth. Silica, she explained, scratches the teeth, while glycerin leaves behind a coating that prevents teeth enamel from growing and healing.
Traditional dentists disagree. “Even if you use hardcore sand-like products on your teeth like baking soda, it’s still not toxic to the body or harmful in a way that would wear away the enamel,” said Jean Connor, president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
In fact, toothpaste manufacturers contend that glycerin and silica are beneficial. “Glycerin from coconut oil, not petroleum, is used to keep toothpaste moist and to prevent it from drying out,” said Susan Dewhirst, a spokesperson for Tom’s of Maine, a company that produces natural toothpaste. “Hydrated silica is an effective, gentle cleaner used to remove plaque.”
The American Dental Association (ADA) hasn’t taken a position on glycerin and silica in toothpaste, but it stands by ADA-tested and approved toothpaste as effective and safe for cleaning teeth. Adler has not applied for the ADA’s seal of approval for her Tooth Soap and has no plans to do so.
Still, some dentists say there is no harm in using detergent-free soap to clean teeth. It’s just another natural teeth-cleaning alternative, like baking soda, said Connor. Dr. Ray Behm, a Florida-based dentist who advises patients to brush with the more abrasive baking soda, understands the appeal. “Soap creates a slicker and smoother surface,” he said.
The product certainly appeals to a growing clientele. Last year, Adler’s Tooth Soap grossed over $400,000 in sales both online and in health food stores across the country, up from $150,000 in sales in 2004.
And Tooth Soap’s success has encouraged some longtime soap manufacturers to follow her lead. Six months ago, Wild Soap Bar, a family-owned company in Texas, began producing Tooth Savior. Sold in shreds, the tooth cleanser comes in only one flavor--mint--but Wild Soap Bar CEO Maggie Hanus is working on a second, perhaps spicier flavor to diversify the selection.
“The taste is something you might have to get used to,” admits Hanus. “But it has none of that sticky glycerin, none of that other stuff in toothpaste.”
Hanus said that one of every three customers who purchases products from Wild Soap Bar’s Internet store buys Tooth Savior.
Meanwhile, Adler continues to build her mercenary of salespeople, who like to call themselves "affiliates" and who sell the soap for a 15 percent commission. She has around 500 so far, including Dawn Light. The author of her own blog about how to live healthily, www.dawnofanewday.com, Light says she earned more than four-times the commission in 2007 that she made in 2006. She plans to sell Tooth Soap directly from her blog in the upcoming months. Adler’s company, Vitality Products, sells one vial, a two- to four-month supply, of Tooth Soap for $24.95.
Still, these products have a long way to go before they’re as common as toothpaste. Hanus says some people hesitate to use these products--because they still painfully recall having their mouths washed out with soap as children.