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If you’ve never heard of tooth powder, you’re not alone. This age-old product was the precursor to toothpaste, but it fell out of favor decades ago.

Even though it’s hard to find on store shelves, tooth powder is still available online and in specialty stores. But should you go out of your way to buy it?

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between tooth powder and toothpaste, plus provide the pros and cons for each.

Tooth powder is thought to have originated many thousands of years ago. Ancient people may have used ingredients such as myrrh, burnt eggshells, crushed animal bone ash, and oyster shells to create powders able to remove mouth odor, plus clean and polish teeth.

Homemade and manufactured tooth powders that contained salt, chalk, or baking soda reached the height of their popularity during the 19th century.

Can be made at home

Today, tooth powders can be made at home from a variety of ingredients, such as:

  • baking soda
  • coarse salt
  • activated charcoal powder
  • flavorings

Some people add essential oils for flavor and health benefits, such as peppermint or clove, plus a sweetener, such as xylitol.

Can be purchased in specialty shops or online

Tooth powders can also be purchased in some specialty shops and online. Some manufactured tooth powders contain cavity-fighting fluoride, but others do not.

Typical ingredients include cleansers and abrasives designed to polish teeth and remove surface stains. Some ingredients you can expect to find in commercially manufactured tooth powder include:

  • baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • activated charcoal
  • bentonite clay

These products also include flavorings.

Tooth powder requires water

Unlike toothpaste, tooth powder requires the addition of water to brush your teeth.

To use, sprinkle the recommended amount of powder, usually about one-eighth of a teaspoon, onto a wet toothbrush and brush your teeth as you normally would.

Toothpaste started to replace tooth powder around 1850 and was originally sold in jars.

Early forms of toothpaste often contained ingredients such as chalk and soap. These early cleansers and whiteners were commonly found in toothpaste until the early 20th century, when the use of detergent cleansers, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, became commonplace. Fluoride was introduced in 1914.

Today, sodium lauryl sulfate and fluoride are still typically found in many brands of toothpaste. Other ingredients include thickeners, humectants, and flavorings of various kinds.

Tooth powder

ProsCons
research indicates that powder is more effective at removing stains and plaque than toothpastedoesn’t typically contain a cavity-fighting ingredient, such as fluoride
can be easily made at home, providing control over ingredients no powders have been awarded the ADA seal of acceptance
may be too abrasive for teeth
sloppy or difficult to use
may leave an aftertaste in the mouth
may come from manufacturers that aren’t transparent in their practices or who don’t accurately list ingredients

Toothpaste

ProsCons
easy to usemay contain ingredients that are of concern to some people, such as fluoride
many have been awarded the ADA seal of acceptancemay come from manufacturers that aren’t transparent in their practices or who don’t accurately list ingredients
contains fluoride for protection against cavities
may contain ingredients designed to significantly whiten teeth, reduce plaque, and eliminate gingivitis
formulations made for sensitive teeth can be easily found

While there have been many studies that show the importance of brushing teeth with fluoride toothpaste, there aren’t many that contrast the benefits of toothpaste versus tooth powder.

However, two studies (one from 2014 and another from 2017) designed by the same lead researcher found that tooth powder was more effective than toothpaste for removing surface stains from teeth, as well as controlling plaque-induced gingivitis.

Today’s toothpastes and tooth powders share many of the same ingredients, except for fluoride. If cavity fighting is important to you, make sure to check the label of any product you buy to ensure that it contains fluoride.

Tooth powders also don’t contain ingredients that remove intrinsic and extrinsic stains. Neither do many toothpastes. Intrinsic stains are those which originate within the tooth, instead of on its surface.

The most common causes of intrinsic stains are some medications, using too much fluoride, and tooth decay. Tobacco and some beverages, such as coffee, tea, and red wine, can cause extrinsic stains.

If you’re considering using a tooth powder for stain removal, you may be better off with a whitening toothpaste formulated for this purpose.

Both toothpaste and tooth powder have benefits for tooth health. Both may also contain ingredients that may be of concern for people when it comes to overall health. These include:

  • Triclosan. Triclosan is an antibacterial ingredient. It was removed from most toothpaste formulations due to concerns about its ability to generate antibiotic resistance, as well as disrupt thyroid hormone function.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Some research indicates that use of this ingredient is safe and the fear of it is overblown. However, some people find SLS irritating to the skin and gums, and there’s also some scientific evidence to substantiate that claim.
  • Fluoride. While it’s widely acknowledged that fluoride is beneficial for tooth health, some people have concerns about the side effects it may cause. These include discoloration or white spots on teeth (dental fluorosis) and skeletal fluorosis, a bone disease. It’s worth noting that side effects from fluoride are caused by swallowing large amounts, or by long-term exposure to high levels, not by standard toothpaste use.

Whether you use toothpaste, tooth powder, or a combination of both, check the ingredients to make sure you’re using a product you can feel good about.

Tooth powder preceded toothpaste by many centuries. It isn’t widely used today, but it’s still available to purchase online.

Both toothpaste and tooth powder have benefits for oral health. Tooth powder hasn’t been widely studied. However, two small studies found that tooth powder is superior to toothpaste when it comes to reducing plaque and whitening external stains.

Most tooth powder formulations don’t contain fluoride or any type of cavity-fighting ingredient, though. If cavities are a concern, you may be better off sticking to toothpaste.

If you’re trying to avoid fluoride, or want to control the ingredients you use, making tooth powder at home or buying a natural brand may be your better choice.