Smile -- now your teeth can have aromatherapy

It's the latest thing in toothpaste, whose makers are always looking for an edge

April 06, 2003|By Judy Hevrdejs | Judy Hevrdejs,Special to the Sun

You have something like 32 teeth in your mouth -- give or take a few wisdom teeth.

If you were so inclined, you could brush each tooth with a different paste -- there are enough out there to do so -- thanks to a culture that celebrates individualism and manufacturers happy to be part of that celebration.

"If you think about what consumers are used to seeing -- more targeted products -- it would only make sense, then, that the oral-care category and the toothpaste category would follow suit," said Kim Feil, division president for worldwide innovation at Information Resources Inc., a market researcher in Chicago. "America is spoiled by variety."

Added Dr. Richard Price, a spokesman for the American Dental Association: "Because you have less than 300 million people in this country and the market gets saturated very quickly, if I were a manufacturer, I'd want to come out with a different kind of mouthtrap, so to speak. Therefore, you have toothpastes that do all kinds of different things."

Last year, we spent more than $1.26 billion on toothpastes, according to IRI figures, that do "all those different things." At least a dozen companies, from Colgate and Crest on through Aquafresh, Pepsodent, Arm & Hammer, Tom's of Maine and Sensodyne, offer variations on the paste-plus-fluoride theme, promising to tackle cavities, plaque (and tartar, its tougher-to-remove sibling), gingivitis, bad breath and dull color.

(To keep things, well, simple, we're sticking only to toothpaste, not the deluge of mouthwashes, whitening products, brushes and tongue scrapers out there.)

"In the last few years, there's been a boom when companies launch new products, and they've been launching a whole range of flavors and varieties," Feil said. "The tone of that right now is shifting into this aromatherapy and emotional-health space. So it's interesting that we're starting to see things like herbal products and things that have aroma benefits. ... The aroma is as much a part of the experience -- this idea of being good to your mind, your soul and your heart and your head at the same time you're helping your teeth."

Feil could have been talking about two newcomers: Crest's vanilla-cinnamon-mint flavored Rejuvenating Effects or Colgate's Herbal White Toothpaste scented with mint, lemon, eucalyptus and melissa (or balm mint extract, as the label explains).

"To maintain growth, companies need to do something to differentiate their brands from other brands," said Thomas O'Guinn, a professor of sociology and advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "A relatively inexpensive way to do that is to continue to offer line extensions or extensions of the brand in an effort to keep creating the idea that they have a unique offering because uniqueness tends to be a good thing in marketing."

A couple of consumer trends are driving all of this, according to Feil. "The whole oral-care category has moved out of the dentist office and into a self-care environment. And baby boomers who grew up in an era where they could afford to take care of themselves do have more income going into their twilight years, and they are also accustomed to having a pill and a solution to every need."

Things weren't always so confusing. Since B.C. days, people have been using pastes made from powdered ginger and musk, charcoal or the ashes of animal bones to clean and polish their teeth. Soap was long part of the formulation. And until 1892, dentifrice often came in porcelain jars. It was then that Connecticut dentist Washington Wentworth Sheffield, according to dental history, put toothpaste into a collapsible metal tube.

In fact, it wasn't until after World War II that people realized they could keep their Mother Nature-provided choppers and needed toothpaste for their entire lives.

"Putting in additives really exploded in the 1950s, '60s, '70s," O'Guinn said.

But the question remains, What toothpaste is right for you?

"I tell my patients, fluoride because fluoride has value. It reduces the potential for decay. Other than that, toothpaste is merely a vehicle to make brushing more pleasant," Dr. Trucia Drummond, a Chicago dentist, says. "It's really the physical act of brushing your teeth that cleans them."

Dentists recommend that consumers look for the American Dental Association seal, which means it has been tested. According to Price, when you see a tube of toothpaste with the ADA seal on it, 99.9 percent of the time it is because of the fluoride in it.

Then things tend to get specialized, he said. Those prone to tartar buildup might look for those containing anti-tartar ingredients.

Price added, "You want a toothpaste because it has a detergent action, it has a mild abrasive action and, if it has fluoride, it has a mild therapeutic action."

"The baking soda in the toothpaste really is a flavoring agent, a kind of salty taste," he said. "The peroxide that's in it is more of a marketing ingredient -- it's half of 1 percent peroxide, which has no therapeutic value at that level, but it foams and we have been brought up to think foaming is good."

Judy Hevrdejs is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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