Toothpaste helps us clean our teeth and prevent cavities. But if you use a toothpaste that contains plastic  microbeads, could it be creating new problems while solving others?

Dental hygienist Trish Walraven noticed tiny bits of blue plastic lodged under patients’ gums or between their teeth and wrote about it in her blog DentalBuzz. These tiny spheres, found in several popular brands, are inert, but they still can cause gum problems, according to some dental experts.

Justin Phillip, DDS, recently told KNXV-TV in Phoenix that the plastic beads “will trap bacteria in the gums, which leads to gingivitis, and over time that infection moves from the gum into the bone that holds your teeth, and that becomes periodontal disease."  

On Facebook and other social media outlets, people have recounted having to go to the dentist to remove microbeads lodged too deeply under their gums to reach with a toothpick. “Not a fun experience,” one patient reported, adding that his dentist advised him to throw away his toothpaste.

There's another problem: Microbeads, also found in many other personal care products, from body scrubs to cosmetics, don’t degrade. And they’re too small for water treatment plants to filter out. This means they’re pouring into our waterways by the billions. 

Related: Plastic Microbeads: Is Your Toothpaste or Facial Scrub Hurting The Environment?

Unnecessary window dressing?

“Microbeads are not necessary," says hygienist Walraven. "They were added to provide color — to make you go, ‘Oh, my toothpaste is really pretty. They provide no scrubbing action. They provide no dermatological or dental benefit. And because microbeads are plastic (made primarily from polyethylene and acrylates copolymer), they don’t degrade. A microbead can stay under gums — like having a splinter stuck under your cuticle or fingernail — for a long time," something that she and a number of dentists say may lead to chronic gum infections.

Related: 5 Things Your Didn't Know About Flossing Your Teeth

Not all dentists worry about microbeads, however. “We haven’t seen evidence” that they're causing damage to patients, says Namrata Nayyar, DDS, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Dentistry. 

In a statement, the American Dental Association noted that “clinically relevant dental studies” don’t suggest the ADA should withdraw its seal of approval from toothpastes containing polyethylene.

Related: Why Your Gums Are Receding

The big squeeze on microbeads

By all accounts, Crest is the last toothpaste in the United States manufactured with polyethylene beads. Nine brands of Crest toothpaste (including White Radiant Mine and White Arctic Fresh) sold here contain plastic microbeads, according to a July 2015 list compiled by a consortium of NGOs that oppose microbeads in cosmetics. 

In response to a flurry of news reports late last year, Proctor & Gamble, the maker of Crest, said polyethylene is an FDA-approved food additive and that it is safe in toothpaste. Nevertheless, the company announced in September 2014 that most of its products would be microbead-free by March 2015 and that all Crest products would be microbead-free by March 2016.

In a company blog, Proctor & Gamble said the company had originally included the beads in some toothpastes based on positive feedback from users. “Dental professionals will attest that enjoyable toothpastes generally promote longer brushing time and thus healthier outcomes,” the company wrote. “We do understand that preferences change, so we have begun removing microbeads from our toothpastes.”

Colgate Palmolive, which formerly used polyethylene microbeads in some of its toothpaste brands, removed polyethylene from all its toothpaste formulations in 2013 and all its cosmetics in 2014, according to Colgate spokesperson Thomas DiPiazza. 

Toothpastes containing plastic flecks are no longer found "within Colgate's manufacturing, warehouse or distribution operations," DiPiazza said. Although the NGO consortium opposing plastic microbeads includes two Colgate brands on the current list of U.S. toothpastes with plastic microbeads, DiPiazza notes that with the two-year expiration date on toothpaste, "you would not expect to find [them] on a store shelf today." 

Related: 6 Surprising Ways to Brush Your Teeth Better

What you can do

If you'd prefer to avoid plastic microbeads in your toothpaste:

  • Look at the product you're using now. If it has colored speckles, they're most likely polyethylene, says Walraven. Toss the tube.
  • If you’ve recently purchased toothpaste with microbeads, take it back to the retailer where you bought it. Explain why you’re returning it and ask for a refund.
  • Check the toothpaste ingredients before buying. (The tube itself will list only active ingredients,  but the box should list both active and inactive ingredients). If the list contains polyethylene, the toothpaste contains microbeads. 

Daniel S. Levine is an award-winning journalist who heads the Levine Media Group and hosts The Bio Report and RARECast podcasts. He was an editor of The Burrill Report and worked for the Oakland Tribune, Adweek, the San Francisco Business Times and other publications.