Picking out a toothpaste can leave you scratching your head, reading about cavity prevention, plaque removal, whitening and sensitivity. Is it all just a labeling game or are some better than others? And, what should you look for?

The claim game

For many of us, finding a toothpaste is all about reading the label to find one that does what we need it to do. But don’t get too excited about toothpaste claims.

If you get tooth pain while eating hot and cold foods, you can choose a paste to help reduce sensitivity.

But according to Dr. Hans Malmstrom, chair of Eastman Dental’s General Dentistry Division, those only work about half the time.

“We don’t have a perfect formula for sensitive teeth,” he says.

If you have sensitive teeth, your dentist can help with an enamel-strenghthening fluoride gel. You may also need a crown, inlay or bonding, or something more serious such as a surgical gum graft or a root canal, according to the American Dental Association.

Many people want to brighten their smile, and turn to whitening and stain-removal toothpaste. But brushing with a whitening paste isn’t going to make a huge difference, at least not right away.

“Toothpaste does not have a significant effect on whitening teeth. You may see a minor change after a long-term use,” Malmstrom says.

Keep in mind that many whitening toothpastes work by using a mild abrasive, which can damage the outer coating of your teeth, known as enamel.

Your best bet for whiter teeth: Again, ask your dentist for an in-office whitening treatment, or to recommend an over-the-counter product, he says.

Some all-in-one toothpastes claim to be able to reduce tartar, prevent cavities and improve gum health. They seem like the perfect solution, but Malmstrom says it might be too good to be true. We need more research to determine whether these toothpastes are effective.

“When we put all these (effects) together, do we inhibit some of the other effects?” Malmstrom says. “The more scientific evidence we have about a product, the more comfortable we are that they do work, and they do what they claim to do.”

So what should I look for?

When choosing a toothpaste, look for the ADA seal of approval, which indicates the product has been evaluated for safety and effectiveness by an independent body of scientific experts.

Once you find the ADA seal on the front, turn the bottle over and look at the list of ingredients. The most important ingredient is fluoride, Malmstrom says, as it strengthens tooth enamel and helps reduce the risk of cavities. This should be easy—according to the Dental Health Foundation, 95% of all toothpastes on the market contain fluoride.

If you’re concerned about ingesting fluoride, there are fluoride-free toothpastes, however, some of those aren’t approved by the ADA.

According to Malmstrom, if you simply spit out the toothpaste after brushing, you shouldn’t have any problem.

“There isn’t sufficient evidence you will have any type of toxic effect if you spit it out afterward,” he says. “For children, just place a smaller amount on the toothbrush.”