Why is There Mint in Your Toothpaste?

Have you ever wondered why mint is in your toothpaste?  Or for that matter, almost every dental product?  I didn’t either until I heard the March 16, 2018 podcast of NPR’s Marketplace.

It seems until the twentieth century, few people brushed their teeth.  Then an ad man named Claude C. Hopkins came along.  He created a national ad campaign for Pepsodent toothpaste — “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”  The campaign was wildly successful — within five years, about 60% of households were using Pepsodent toothpaste, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  One of the reasons for this success was the toothpaste’s inventor added a bit of mint extract to the product.  Mint extract is actually an irritant, causing the tongue to tingle, which consumers took as a sign the toothpaste was working.   Thus this tingling cause by mint was equated with good dental hygiene.  (The active ingredient in mint is actually menthol, which gives a sensation similar to having ice in your mouth.)  So today, Colgate-Palmolive is the largest purchaser of this country’s mint oil; the mint is mostly grown in Washington state.

By the way, mint is not a universal preference.  Other countries have different favorites; India favors spices like clove, and China likes tea flavors, among others.

This piece jogged some memories of mine.  When I was in Egypt about a decade ago, I was given a demonstration of how a drop of mint extract in warm water could very effectively clear you sinuses; the ancients really weren’t medically helpless.  And every sore-muscle remedy I’ve ever bought has contained menthol as its active ingredient — it’s my understanding that topical menthol doesn’t cure anything; the tingle simply distracts your brain from what really hurts.

To listen for yourself, go to https://www.npr.org/podcasts/381444600/marketplace. The mint-in-toothpaste part is about 23 minutes into the March 16 episode.

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