Why Buying Toothpaste Is Nearly as Painful as a Trip to the Dentist

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Retailers sell 353 types and sizes of toothpaste. In 2010, 69 new kinds of toothpaste were introduced to consumers. Both of these figures actually represent a decrease from previous years, when more than 400 varieties of toothpaste lined store shelves and over 100 new products came out annually. And guess what? Dentists say it pretty much doesn’t matter what kind of toothpaste you use, so long as you actually use it.

Toothpaste probably doesn’t belong on the list of most painful shopping experiences—I’ve nominated cars, mattresses, and cell phones and wireless plans for the honors—but that’s mainly because toothpaste doesn’t cost (or hurt) nearly as much as those other purchases. But, what with all the confusing jargon and dizzying number of products to pick from, buying toothpaste seems more painful than it ought to be. For the average shopper who is not brand loyal, and who just wants a good product that’s good for his family and a good value, toothpaste can be located right up there in the confusing department next to the shampoo—which, by the way, is available in 187 varietals in some stores. That’s actually after stores tried to simplify the selection because shoppers felt overwhelmed; there used to be 248 different shampoos to choose from.

The toothpaste data, and the inspiration for this post, come from a WSJ story exploring why there are so damn many toothpastes, and why picking one can feel like more of a chore than actually brushing your teeth and flossing twice daily.

Why do manufacturers put so much time and effort into creating new toothpastes, not to mention the flashy and exciting packaging and marketing material to go along with it? And why do retailers bother to stock everything that those manufacturers keep pumping out of their factories? The answer is that for a relatively inexpensive product, toothpaste—and lots of it—rewards manufacturers and retailers alike. From the WSJ:

Despite the overload, toothpaste is a retail darling, with something for every shopper. Stores see it as a steady traffic generator.

Everybody needs toothpaste. Well, 93% of Americans use it anyway, according to data cited in the story. (What’s up with that other 7%? I’m not sure I want to know.) And so big stores want to make sure that shoppers can always find any toothpaste they want on their store shelves—so that the shoppers keep coming back and never feel the need to hit another store.

Now for the big question: Which toothpaste should you be using?

For what can be a confusing shopping decision, the answer, blessedly, is remarkably simple. A dentist from New York offers this advice:

“Just make sure it has fluoride and has the American Dental Association seal.”

So long as it meets these criteria (and most toothpastes do), the best advice is to pick a toothpaste with a flavor and taste you like, simply because then you’ll be more likely to brush.

But don’t brands matter at all in terms of quality of teeth-whitening power and all that jazz? The dentist answers that one flatly:

“The brand itself doesn’t really matter.”

Now that didn’t hurt a bit, did it?