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Are Special Toothpastes Better?

Written by Gillian Judge for McCall's Magazine, November 1996 issue

Drugstore and supermarket shelves are stocked with a dizzying array of toothpastes containing special ingredients, from tartar fighters and desensitizers to whiteners and baking soda. Are these fancy formulas any better than the old standbys? The following factors will help you make a quick decision.

*If your dentist has told you that you're prone to tartar buildup, choose a tartar-control toothpaste. These products tend to be about 40 percent more effective than regular toothpastes at stopping the formation of the hard, brownish deposit. But remember that not everyone needs them, says Bradley Beiswanger, a professor of dentistry at the Indiana University School of Dentistry in Indianapolis.

*If you'd like to brighten your smile, choose a toothpaste that contains peroxide, Beiswanger says. The vast majority of whitening products don't have this ingredient and won't change the color of your tooth enamel. (They will remove coffee or tobacco stains, but so will proper brushing with any toothpaste.) In addition, the nonperoxide whiteners contain abrasives, which may damage exposed tooth roots.

*People with gingivitis may want to switch to a brand that claims to help control this mild gum inflammation. (Left untreated, gingivitis may damage tissue around the base of the teeth.) But check with your dentist first. While some studies have shown these products to be effective, the benefits have been modest and inconsistent, notes an investigation by "Consumer Reports."

*Choose a baking-soda variety only if you prefer its taste; these toothpastes are no better than others at cleaning your pearly whites.

*If hot or cold beverges or foods bother you, select one of the formulas for sensitive teeth. It will help reduce pain by gradually coating any exposed tooth roots. (If you notice that only one spot hurts, consult your dentist -- you may have a cavity.)