Does Toothpaste Really Work on Pimples?

Patient Expert

Myths abound when it comes to quick fixes for acne. The appearance of zits causes most of us, no matter how old we are, to grasp at any and all solutions for clear skin. While most of those myths have been publicly debunked, some of them still manage to hang around despite the many dermatologists and beauty advisors who say otherwise. This leads to plenty of confusion and a lot of irritated skin.

One of these persistent myths is that toothpaste is an effective, safe remedy for spot-treating acne. A quick Google search will bring up dozens of websites proclaiming that toothpaste will clear your pimples. At the very  least, they say, they don't do any harm. These claims, however, don't hold water. Toothpaste does have the ability to dry out the skin, but leaving your face as parched as a desert is not a healthy route to a clear complexion.

To begin with, most toothpastes contain a menthol ingredient that gives us that familiar minty sensation of clean teeth. Unfortunately, menthol is an ingredient that often irritates skin and causes itching and inflammation. In fact, try to avoid any skin product that lists menthol as an ingredient, especially if you have sensitive skin. A tingling sensation may seem to signal deep cleansing, but menthol does not help increase the effectiveness of skin care products.

In addition, the fluoride in toothpaste may be another irritating factor if applied to skin. Many studies going back to the 1970s show that some people exhibit mild topical allergies to fluoride. In some cases, the use of toothpaste causes contact dermatitis around the lips. For those with sensitive skin, the Physicians' Desk Reference states that fluoride may actually cause skin eruptions.

You may be asking, however, if acne-specific spot treatments also irritate the skin, why is toothpaste any worse? The simple answer is that acne spot treatments include ingredients designed to combat the bacteria responsible for acne.

For example, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are both common anti-acne ingredients, and both cause some drying of the skin. But salicylic acid has been shown to promote cell turnover, meaning that skin gets exfoliated and fresh skin cells come to the surface. Benzoyl peroxide fights acne bacteria specifically and also does not cause bacterial resistance.

In the case of these acne-fighting ingredients, drying out the skin is not the main goal but a side effect. Dry skin does not necessarily lead to clear skin, since some people experience flaky skin alongside acne flare-ups. Applying toothpaste to your skin may seem to work at first glance because it causes immediate dryness, but it can also cause irritation without the benefit of proper anti-acne medication.

The bottom line: Why bother applying toothpaste when a tube of anti-acne spot treatment is more effective? In this case, the gain is simply not worth the pain.