ToothpasteChoosing a toothpaste can be a very confusing process -- especially when your drugstore offers several dozen options. Making the right choice is difficult, but it's well worth the effort.

If You Get a Lot of Cavities: High-fluoride Toothpaste

If you get a lot of cavities, DO NOT use a tartar-control toothpaste. Rather, you should only use a high-fluoride toothpaste.

Explanation: Cavities (i.e. holes in the teeth) are produced if your mouth is acidic. The reason? Bacteria in an acidic mouth release acids that cause cavities, which are essentially "spots of demineralization." Fluoride -- a very hard mineral -- can fill in these spots and/or harden the surface of the enamel. That's why a high-fluoride toothpaste can help.

A tartar-control toothpaste, in contrast, stops mineral from developing on teeth. So if you're already prone to getting cavities, a tartar-control toothpaste actually makes matters even worse.

If You Have Gum Disease: Tartar-control Toothpaste

If you have gum disease, DO NOT use a high-fluoride toothpaste. Rather, you should only use a tartar-control toothpaste.

Explanation: Gum disease is caused by the buildup of tartar -- mineral deposits colonized by gum disease-causing bacteria within hours of formation on the surface of the teeth.

Fluoride adds mineral to teeth in mouths that are prone to developing cavities (acidic mouths). Basic mouths, however, already have too much mineral. In these cases, adding fluoride simply nurtures more tartar and more gum disease-causing bacteria. And that's just what someone with gum disease doesn't need.

Instead, you should focus on stopping mineral from developing on teeth. The solution: a tartar-control toothpaste.

If You Have Root Sensitivity: Toothpaste with Potassium Nitrate

If you have root sensitivity (which often is due to gum loss), you should use a toothpaste with potassium nitrate. Examples include Sensodyne or a generic equivalent.

If you have root sensitivity along with gum disease, brush with Sensodyne at night and the tartar-control toothpaste in the morning.

Explanation: Potassium nitrate can seal tooth root surfaces when a tooth has experienced gum recession or gum loss (thus leaving the tooth's root exposed).

Sensodyne doesn't need to be used all the time to be effective. It can be used only when the root covering recently has been unsealed, such as when you have just had a professional dental cleaning. If occasional use is not enough, however, you can use it all the time.

If you use Sensodyne, it is important to know if your mouth tends to make cavities or gum disease.

  • If your mouth tends to make cavities, you can use Sensodyne as your exclusive toothpaste. Why? Because it deposits mineral on the roots and will not inhibit mineralization of the enamel (which is good for a cavity-prone person).
  • If your mouth tends to develop gum disease, Sensodyne should not be your exclusive toothpaste. You should rotate Sensodyne with a tartar-control toothpaste -- discuss the details of that schedule with your dentist.

In fact, before you use Sensodyne (or a generic equivalent), be sure to talk it over with your dentist. Many patients will mistake "tooth sensitivity" with "root sensitivity," and thus fail to address a developing cavity or other dental problem.