By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist
“Ugh, I’m so tired of worrying about cancer. Everything causes cancer!” The sentiment is a common one. When casually mentioning my research to friends, one said, “Is there anything that doesn’t cause cancer?” The other said, “I’ve already resigned myself to dying from cancer.” This kind of frustration and apathy is understanding, given the multitude of cancer risks out there. However, with a little bit of critical analysis and thought, we can pick through what’s really going on.
The first step to our analysis is to think about what ingredients are in our favorite mouth-freshening experience. Then, we need to see what risk they claim to cause. Let’s get started, shall we? With…
Titanium Dioxide in Toothpaste - Not a Good Thing
Like many chemicals in toothpaste, titanium dioxide appears in a host of other products as well, including: sweets, chocolates, biscuits, gum, and sunscreen. One of its purposes is to make things look whiter, which in toothpaste marketing, is understandably important.
Titanium dioxide is often referred to as E171, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that inhaling it could cause cancer. They also note inflammation and asthma as possible side effects. E171 is the European-Union designated name for this white color additive. It also goes by: CI 778. A 2012 report by Alex Weir from the Arizona State University affirms its link to cancer and also to Crohn’s disease from gastrointestinal intake, although more studies are required to confirm both claims.
E171 is easily absorbed into the intestine and passed into the blood, then spreading to other parts of the body. Recently in 2017, Sarah Bettini from the Research Center in Food Toxicology in Toulouse, France discovered a surprising result: When testing rats, she and researchers found precancerous growths in 40% of the rodents tested. The chemical was also shown to weaken rats’ immune system. Poor little guys.
Any critical scientist would note, of course, that rats and humans have their differences, but it’s still enough to give pause and make me think twice about buying toothpaste or other products with titanium. You may look to the dosage to determine whether you want to mess with it. Generally, within toothpaste, it ranges from less than 0.1% to almost 0.5%. My strategy as a consumer will be to buy products with the lowest titanium dioxide content possible. In the camp of other breath freshening products, you can also find this whitening substance in high concentrations in gum.
Here’s another common ingredient in toothpaste. But it may get less common soon. The state of Minnesota has already put a ban on it, due to a variety of disturbing studies.
So, what’s up with triclosan? Besides being pretty omnipresent, like titanium dioxide (triclosan is in antibacterial soaps and cosmetics, as well), it has the potential to unbalance the body in various ways. According to a 2014 report by Michael T. Dinwiddie from the University of Tennessee, evidence suggests that triclosan might factor into cancer development due to estrogenicity or to the ability to inhibit fatty acid synthesis. Xenoestrogens, which are estrogen-mimicking compounds, when encountered in excess in the body, can increase the likelihood of breast and other cancers.
A specific analysis shows that triclosan may not only increase the risk of cancer, but generally screw up hormonal balance. In a 2006 study led by Nik Veldhoen from the University of Victoria in Canada researchers stated that “exposure to low levels of triclosan disrupts thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and can alter the rate of thyroid hormone-mediated postembryonic...development.” This claim was based on research about triclosan and whether it induced changes in the thyroid hormone-mediated process of metamorphosis of the North American bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana.
One thing’s for sure: If triclosan is a problem for humans, we’re in trouble. The Center for Disease Control and prevention tested 2,517 people in 2003, and almost ¾ had triclosan in their urine. Those using the toothpaste Colgate Total had more than 5 times as much triclosan as those who didn’t.
So, this one’s weird, but be careful when buying toothpaste in India. Although it’s technically banned in many areas, according to a 2012 report by S.S. Agrawal from the University of Delhi in New Delhi, India, its presence is still indicated in 4 brands of toothpaste there. These include: Dabur red-P1 (BD 0698), Vicco-P2 (065), Arodent-P3 (64), Babool-P4 (1498), Herbodent-P5 (20), and Colgate Herbal-P6 (B24CP).
This isn’t news to anyone living in North America, but nicotine is bad for you, kids. In addition to causing precancerous lesions that likely lead to oral cancer, it disturbs antioxidant defense mechanisms and raises your blood pressure.
Oddly enough, in some parts of India, there is still the misconception that tobacco is good for your teeth. However, given that the country has one of the highest rates of oral cancer in the world (65% for men, 33% for women), hopefully everyone will soon make the link. In addition to toothpaste, nicotine is also present in tooth powders.
The quantities of nicotine in toothpaste aren’t negligible, either. According to studies compiled in Agrawal’s report, there is enough to actually cause an effect, and may have a bigger impact on children. While adults usually have better rinsing habits, kids may let the toothpaste seep into their teeth a bit more.
In summary: If you live in India, check the ingredients rigorously. And if you are vacationing there, bring your own toothpaste.
So, should I be worried?
While I would go the route of Minnesota, and not add triclosan to my toothpaste just in case, there are many claims, in the case of both triclosan and titanium dioxide, that there’s nothing to worry about. Or, at the very least, there’s not sufficient proof to ban it for humans yet.
Critics claim that the studies use higher doses of substances for tests than there actually are in toothpastes. And in the case of triclosan, it’s actually antimicrobial, so some scientists argue that in low dosages, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Nicotine, of course, is an obvious “No!”
In the camp of “we just don’t know yet,” people make some good points. The majority of studies have been performed on animals or in vitro and not too much on humans. Additionally, given the amount of chemicals people are exposed to on a daily basis and the disposition for cancer, it’s hard to prove a cause and effect between any product and the development of the disease.
Still and all, I’d rather be safe than sorry. I won’t stop brushing my teeth of course. But I might just be more cautious about checking the ingredients in my toothpaste.