Should We Be Worried About What’s in Our Toothpaste?

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There was an email circulating a few years ago that made claims that Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES), related chemicals used as foaming agents in various shampoos, cleansers, cosmetics, toothpastes and many other household items, were known carcinogens. This turned out to be false, but still based on a partial truth – SLES has the potential to contain 1,4-dioxane, a hormonal disruptor that may be carcinogenic in high doses (higher than what is found in your toothpaste).

It seems that people love to spread fear through internet chain mail and facts always take a second seat. If we were to believe everything we read in email forwards, there would be predators in every mall parking lot, envelopes at automatic tellers would be laced with LSD or Anthrax and everything under the sun would give you cancer (it’s always cancer, have you noticed that? I guess nothing spreads fear like the big C). Internet rumors like these tend to do more damage than good, which may or may not be their intent. While these scare tactics may discourage people from using these products for awhile, inevitably when the rumors are debunked, the substances are stricken from further scrutiny. But despite the exaggerated half-truths and lies in the chain email, SLS and SLES aren’t benign – both are known to cause skin irritation and can cause permanent damage in children’s eye development. I know that switching to a hand-soap that didn’t contain SLS made my eczema all but vanish (despite the fact that I was convinced it had nothing to do with the soap I was using). But mentioning this will automatically label me as someone who “fell for the hoax.”

These hoaxes work because they exploit our fear of the unknown – we don’t know what’s in our household products, we don’t know what causes cancer and we don’t trust corporations. Let’s face it, the track records for the use of harmful ingredients in manufactured products isn’t the best. Remember the footage of DDTs being sprayed from giant tanker trucks onto lawns and trees while nearby families picnicked and smiling children ran through the spray giggling? There have been more than a few mistakes in the past when it comes to the ingredients in manufactured products and human safety.

The manufacturers of these products aren’t trying to deliberately hurt us by exposing us to these harmful ingredients, however, and we know this. But we also know that the corporate structure emphasizes the bottom line over all else. Money matters. It is a rare company that is actually taking anything into consideration in the manufacturing, marketing and promotion of its product other than keeping costs low and profits high. Even the majority of companies that call their products “green”, “natural” or “healthy” are using these terms because they sell, not because the company cares about the consumer. In fact, presenting the idea that their corporation or product “cares for the consumer” is yet another marketing ploy, and it’s a ploy that works.

Is it really any wonder there is so much mistrust for what’s in our toothpaste? We know that most companies aren’t really concerned with our well-being. How can you trust someone who is exclusively protecting their own interests? Which would you rather have on your teeth – the cheapest foaming agent or the safest one?

So while you can’t believe everything (or arguably, anything) you read in email chain letters, don’t be lulled into the belief that there is no cause for concern. More than ever before, we need to be informed consumers.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

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