I wasn’t at an Aesop boutique in Brooklyn to visit the $17 toothpaste—I was there to visit the $39 hand soap. I say “visit,” because the other ways to describe going into a store to look at a product all imply that some sort of purchase might be in my future. I just wanted to stand in a beautiful boutique for a second and see something ridiculous while I waited for a ride home from getting my glasses adjusted next door.
Aesop is one of a growing stable of brands turning the mundane tasks of personal hygiene into luxury experiences, with the price tags to match. Washing your hands or putting on deodorant can now come with a full aesthetic experience. Even defecating can be elevated: Aesop sells “poo poo drops” to neutralize bathroom odors and back issues of The Paris Review to read on the john.
The pricey toothpaste I stumbled on showed just how far brands like Aesop can go to blur the lines between health-care and beauty products. In doing that, some of them have traded in the finer points of scientific advancement (like fluoride) that have long characterized oral hygiene. In return, luxury toothpastes offer fun flavors, such as jasmine and ginger, and beautiful packaging. While some do tout their “natural” ingredients, they generally don’t make any super-scientific claims about their superiority. They’re just another option that’ll get the job done, if you want to spend 10 or 15 extra bucks. Based on how soothing it is to go into an Aesop store, they might be worth it for a certain kind of consumer, but the reason why doesn’t have much to do with shiny teeth.
Aesop has been making mouthwash since 2013. With the 2017 debut of its toothpaste, the company ventured more deeply into the burgeoning high-end dental-care market, which includes minimalist bamboo toothbrushes, $24 mouthwash in vintage-looking glass flasks, and the beauty retailer Sephora’s first floss vendor. That, according to the luxury-marketing expert Dina Fierro, is the result of a stacked personal-care market that has forced businesses to get creative. “If you look at cosmetics or skin care, those are saturated spaces,” she says. “You’re going to see more brands innovating in categories that are a little less sexy. Brands have got to find the white space.”
The U.S. oral-care market was valued at $28 billion in 2017 and is expected to keep growing over the next five years, making it primed for the kind of disruption that’s happened in formerly staid industries such as skin care or bedding. Market veterans such as the ornately packaged Italian brand Marvis and upstarts such as the ultra-minimal Davids all promise basically the same thing: clean teeth and a pretty tube on your sink. It’s a pleasant sensorial experience in an otherwise drab part of the day.
The luxury of fancy toothpaste is in the act of owning and using the product itself, not the fact that you get to keep your teeth while people who can pay only $2 to $6 for conventional toothpaste can’t. That’s a refreshingly direct value proposition, and one that runs contrary to current trends in personal care, which tend to make big-benefit claims from small shifts in product composition. “They’re really not selling you on the ingredients or the formulations,” says Fierro. “That’s not the point of differentiation for many of these products from a marketing standpoint.”
Why people might spend those few extra bucks when a conventional toothpaste would suffice might seem baffling when you first hear the term luxury toothpaste, but once you get over the initial shock and remember that Instagram exists, it’s a little easier to conceptualize. Fierro, a friend from my previous life in the fashion industry, is pretty frank about her own appreciation for fancy toothpaste. “Form matters as much as function to me. I was seduced by the packaging,” she says.
She’s never Instagrammed her toothpaste, but plenty of people do: The #marvis hashtag contains more than 65,000 posts on the social network, most depicting the brand’s signature metallic tubes artfully arranged with other aesthetically pleasing beauty products. In that regard, high-end toothpaste is just like any other entry-level luxury good: In addition to its straightforward use, any luxury product also serves as a status-signaler, whether guests spot your expensive toothpaste after excusing themselves to your bathroom or your followers see it in the corner of an Instagrammed skin-care collection.
Because most of these high-end toothpastes lack fluoride, their efficacy as an actual health product is more controversial, although among dentists, it’s pretty clear-cut. Fluoride is added to most conventional adult toothpastes in the United States, and the American Dental Association recommends that adults use fluoride toothpaste to prevent decay. “It is helpful for everyone, even those who drink fluoridated water and visit their dentist regularly,” says Jessica Hilburg, an associate dean for clinical affairs at the NYU College of Dentistry. (Marvis did not return a request for comment, and via a representative, Aesop emphasized its commitment to rigorous scientific testing of all of its products.)
Fluoride is also added to the drinking water that a majority of Americans consume, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drinking that water reduces the likelihood of cavities by about 25 percent. In the past few decades, though, worries have emerged outside dentistry that fluoride may cause cancer, among other health problems. Fluoride’s potential as a carcinogen remains contentious, but those concerns center mainly on the mineral’s addition to public drinking water instead of its use in dental products. According to the American Cancer Society, not only is the link between fluoride and cancer uncertain, but fluoride in toothpaste would be of minimal risk regardless, because it isn’t swallowed.
Ultimately, though, the most important thing is that consumers brush their teeth regularly and for the correct amount of time. In a 2016 interview, David Okano, an associate professor of clinical dentistry at the University of Utah, explained that although he thinks patients should use fluoride toothpaste, the act of brushing by itself is enough for a considerable improvement in oral health. “You really do not need toothpaste to remove the dental plaque from your teeth,” he says. “Purely the mechanical action of the toothbrush bristles and your dental floss disrupts the dental plaque that ultimately leads to tooth decay and gum disease.”
On that point, Hilburg agrees. “The most important choice for toothpaste is one that a patient will use regularly as directed,” she says. For plenty of people, a fun flavor or pretty tube could conceivably be enough to encourage them to brush for the length of time recommended by dentists, which Hilburg says is two minutes.
Concerns of physical health aside, what these fancy toothpastes might address most directly is the very American notion that it’s frivolous to care about the beauty of everyday things. Most of these high-end toothpastes are made by brands from Europe, where elaborately packaged and slightly spendy personal-care products are commonplace and widely used. Fierro first found Marvis while traveling in Europe, and she says paying a few extra bucks (a regular tube costs $10.50) to make a daily ritual less of a chore and more of a treat doesn’t feel like a ridiculous extravagance. “I love how it looks on my sink,” she says. “I appreciate that. I have to look at it, you know?”