The world around us has changed dramatically over the past nine months. In many personal care categories, we have seen a shift in consumer priorities. For some segments, and in some regions, cost has become a higher priority with consumers; in others, there is a greater focus on added functionality, driven by a need for at-home personal care. However, when we look at the world of oral care, it seems as though little has changed. Functionality is not a new proposition. It has been a core product value for some time. A closer examination, however, reveals a different story.
Oral care is a strange beast. Consumers generally recognize the importance of a regular oral care routine in their lives—no one wants a dental check-up to end with a revelation that major work needs to be done. There’s also strong awareness that they need to brush regularly to help prevent cavities, and that poor oral hygiene can lead to other health issues.
This strong link has, over the last few decades, driven significant developments in the functional capabilities of the category. Besides well-established functional ingredients such as surfactants, fluoride, etc., ingredients have emerged to address sensitivity and bacteria management, which have become established norms for the consumer. This makes oral care unique in the personal care world in that it delivers a multitude of positive health benefits and these health benefits are the primary connection to the consumer.
So what’s next for oral care? While other categories have sought to create emotional connections with consumers, in this area, oral care lags behind. Standing in the oral care aisle at the supermarket reveals a huge variety of offerings to the consumer but the majority of these differ simply in their functionalities, ranging from anti-cavity and sensitive tooth care, to antibacterial and various combinations thereof.
The present article reviews recent developments in the oral care category, including novel claims and ingredients. It also underlines where opportunities lie in this segment intersecting function with beauty and innovation.
Oral Care Market
Similar to other personal care categories, oral care comprises different product formats, with toothpaste and mouthwash dominating the category in value (see Figure 1). While a relatively small number of multinational brands has the largest market share, there appears to be plenty of space for smaller brands to differentiate themselves and connect with consumers.
A product’s ability to secure unique positioning traditionally relies heavily on its functional claims. Figure 2 shows the prevalence of various claims currently made for oral care products. Tooth fortification with vitamins or minerals, primarily fluoride, continues to be the top claim. This is based on a wealth of scientific evidence linking the benefits of fluoride to the reduction of dental caries—which has strong consumer recognition.
Clinical efficacy claims for oral care have been based on the success of stannous fluoride (SnF2), which was the active ingredient in the original Cresta brand toothpaste. Other fluoride actives became generally available in the 1960s, such as sodium monofluorophosphate (SMFP), which delivers its activity by hydrolyzing in saliva to release free fluoride ions. Since the development of fluoride-compatible silica systems in the early 1980s, most formulations deliver fluoride from one of four clinically proven fluoride salts: sodium fluoride, stannous fluoride, SMPF and amine fluoride.
Breath-freshening, Sensitivity and Antibacterial Claims
Besides tooth fortification, other functional claims are prevalent. These include breath-freshening—linking a clean, fresh feeling with a sense of cleaning efficacy, as well as sensitivity and antibacterial claims.
Sensitivity is an interesting area. It has become an established need for an increasing number of consumers. Dentine hypersensitivity is the sensation felt when the nerves inside the teeth become exposed. This can vary from irritation to intense pain.
Different approaches have been taken to solutions for dentine hypersensitivity. These range from the use of potassium salts such as potassium nitrate, which reduces the transmission of pain by directly blocking nerve impulses,1 to precipitation technologies using actives such as arginine and calcium carbonate, strontium acetate, strontium chloride and hydroxyapatite (HAP). Precipitation technologies aim to block the exposed dentinal tubules with mineral precipitates that pack into these openings.
Tooth Whitening Claim
Tooth whitening appears to offer no observable health benefit but consumers seem to associate white teeth with younger, healthier teeth. Whitening effects are typically achieved through toothpaste using a mild abrasive such as zeolites and silicates. Rather than actually whitening teeth, the abrasive scours surface stains to remove them. Another approach is to add ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide to an oral care formulation. Note that this approach is not permitted in some regions.
The desire to have visibly cleaner and brighter—and even cleaner-feeling—teeth is becoming more important. This is reinforced by the increased number of global oral care launches featuring whitening claims. In 2018, for example, Mintel GNPD reported 44% of new launches in both Chile and South Korea made whitening claims. Hungary and the UK saw 39% and 33%, respectively.
The growth of whitening claims is linked heavily to the anti-aging trend in other personal care categories. In relation, in recent years, brands have actively explored how to deliver whitening benefits without adding ingredients perceived as harsh to the consumer. Ingredients such as charcoal and botanicals are added for their perceived whitening benefits; charcoal whitening stripsb offer one example in yet another product form.
Creating a more high-tech perception of whitening are products such as White by Night with liquid calciumc. Or, Max White Expert Completed with calcium pyrophosphate to clean and polish teeth; tetrasodium pyrophosphate to protect teeth against stain build-up; silica to clean and polish teeth; and hydrogen peroxide to remove intrinsic and extrinsic stains and whiten teeth.
It is interesting to note that whitening products other than toothpastes have shown some decline in the market. This may be due to whitening being achievable through brushing, rendering the need for an additional product unnecessary. Or perhaps it is the user experience, as whitening products can be challenging to use or unpleasant to taste. Efficacy may be a factor as well if whitening products have not provided the desired results. This could be an opportunity for further product development and innovation.
Flavor in Oral Care
One of the difficulties in differentiating oral care products is the delivery of flavor. In most other personal care categories, consumers want to experience a wide range of flavors or fragrances. However, one look at the most popular flavors and fragrances for oral care reveals that mint continues to be king. According to Mintel’s GNPD, from October 2015 to October 2020, more than 15,000 new toothpaste products launched globally, with more than 87% using mint as their core flavor profile (see Figure 3).
This number of launches has most certainly encouraged innovation, albeit not when it comes to flavor. There are some subtle regional differences. In Europe and the Americas, mint definitely rules and there is little deviation from this in most adult toothpastes or mouthwash. Children appear to have all of the fun, with fruity and fantasy flavors but as they grow older, even they switch to mint or mint derivatives as the core flavor.
Looking at some of the fringe flavors offered, again, Europe and the Americas tend to be conservative, with variants based around mainstream flavors from other similar categories. Asia offers slightly more diversity in its acceptance of fringe flavors, with floral and herbal variants being developed.
To understand this narrow flavor preference, consider why consumers have traditionally used oral care products and what they expect in terms of product experience. Extensive consumer research has revealed that clean, fresh and refreshing feelings are the major drivers of the oral hygiene experience, and this is strongly connected to a mint flavor (see Figure 4). One of the major challenges in delivering that clean and fresh feeling, however, is the oral care product base—particularly the active ingredients in it. These rarely taste good and can even be unpalatable and off-putting to the consumer. Consider any mouthwash that uses chlorohexidine as the antibacterial active. While this ingredient is highly effective at killing a broad range of bacteria, its taste is unpleasant.
Perhaps this is a market opportunity, i.e., developing a functional ingredient for oral care that is effective and also appeals to the consumer. It might even offer customizable and emotional experiences. From another direction, perhaps a flavor could deliver more than just taste.
- Kim, S. (1986). Hypersensitive teeth: Desensitization of pulpal sensory nerves. J Endodod 12 482-485.
a Crest is a Procter & Gamble brand.
b Teeth Whitening Strips is a product of My White Secret.
c White by Night is a product of Perlweiss.
d Max White Expert Complete is a product of the Colgate-Palmolive Company.