Over 95% of the toothpaste sold in the U.S. now contains fluoride, with many grocery stores carrying few if any non-fluoridated brands. The use of fluoride toothpaste, particularly during early childhood, presents health risks. This is why the FDA requires a poison warning on every tube of fluoride toothpaste now sold in the US.
Risks from ingesting fluoride toothpaste include permanent tooth discoloration (dental fluorosis), stomach ailments, acute toxicity, skin rashes (perioral dermatitis), and impairment in glucose metabolism. All of these risks have been unnecessarily increased by the marketing practices of toothpaste manufacturers, who use cartoon packaging and candy-flavors to target *adult-strength* fluoride toothpaste to young *children.* The dental community’s failure to educate the public about the dangers of swallowing too much fluoride toothpaste has further exacerbated the problem.
A Major Source of Children’s Daily Fluoride Intake
Fluoride toothpastes sold in the U.S. generally contain between 1,100 and 1,450 parts per million (ppm) fluoride (the equivalent of over 1 mg of fluoride for each gram of paste). Although the fine print on the back of the toothpaste tube instructs users not to swallow and to use only a “pea-sized” amount, advertisements continue to depict heaping swirls of paste on the brush, (Basch 2013), and manufacturers continue to market fluoride toothpastes in bubble-gum, fruit, and candy-like flavors. Using child-appealing flavors is particularly dangerous because young children have poorly developed swallowing reflexes, and invariably swallow large amounts of the paste they add to the brush.
Not surprisingly, numerous studies have found that many children ingest a significant amount of fluoride each day from toothpaste alone. According to the Journal of Public Health Dentistry: “Virtually all authors have noted that some children could ingest more fluoride from [toothpaste] alone than is recommended as a total daily fluoride ingestion.” (Levy 1999).
A Major Risk Factor for Dental Fluorosis
One side effect from swallowing too much fluoride is dental fluorosis. Dental fluorosis is a defect in tooth enamel caused by excessive fluoride intake during the tooth-forming years (age 0 to 8). In its mild forms, dental fluorosis presents as cloudy white splotches and streaks on the teeth, while in its moderate and severe forms, fluorosis can cause extensive brown and black staining along with pitting and crumbling of the enamel. Children who ingest a lot of toothpaste (whether accidentally or purposefully), can develop the disfiguring brown and black stains of advanced fluorosis, particularly if they also drink fluoridated water. Fluorosis on the front teeth, even in its “mild” forms, but especially in its severe forms, can cause self-esteem problems for a child, particularly when they reach adolescence.
In 1997, the FDA ordered toothpaste manufacturers to add a poison warning on all fluoride toothpastes sold in the U.S. The warning reads:
“Keep out of reach of children under 6 years of age. If you accidentally swallow more than used for brushing, seek professional help or contact a poison control center immediately.”
The FDA requires this warning because children who swallow too much fluoride toothpaste can suffer acute poisoning, even death. In fact, a single tube of bubble-gum flavored Colgate-for-Kids toothpaste contains enough fluoride (143 mg) to kill a child weighing less than 30 kg. (Whitford 1987a).
While fatalities from fluoride ingestion are rare (the last reported death occurred in 2002), bouts of acute fluoride poisoning are not. Acute fluoride poisoning, which occurs at doses as low as 0.1 to 0.3 mg per kg of bodyweight, generally presents in the form of gastric pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, and flu-like symptoms. (Akiniwa 1997; Gessner 1994). A child weighing 10 kg would only need to ingest 1 to 3 grams of paste (less than 3% of a tube of Colgate-for-Kids) to experience one or more of these symptoms.
Although it is believed that many poisoning incidents from fluoride toothpaste go undiagnosed and unreported (Shulman 1997), the number of calls to Poison Control Centers in the U.S. for fluoride poisonings from toothpaste has skyrocketed since the FDA issued its poison warning. Indeed, in the early 1990s (prior to the FDA’s warning), there were about 1,000 poisoning reports each year from fluoride toothpaste. (Shulman 1997). Today, there are over 23,000 reports a year, resulting in hundreds of emergency room treatments.