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UCL Mechanical Engineering
Faculty of Engineering Sciences


Reinventing toothpaste with nanotechnology: The future of oral health formulations

UCL Mechanical Engineering academics Dr Stavroula Balabani and Dr Manish K Tiwari will be exploring new horizons in oral health, finding fresh perspectives on toothpaste formulations through a research grant worth over £2 million.

As part of a consortium with Professor Panagiota Angeli (UCL Chemical Engineering), Dr Helen J Wilson (UCL Mathematics), and Dr Luca Mazzei (UCL Chemical Engineering), UCL will be figuring out ways to reinvent, improve and push the potential of toothpastes. The project, dubbed CORAL (short for Complex ORAL health products) will address the complex flow behaviour of new toothpaste formulations and the underlying manufacturing challenges.

Dr Balabani, Reader in Thermofluids said, “that would be the ideal impact – to use new toothpaste formulations as an exemplar to understand how complex multiphase mixtures behave at small scales during industrial processing and explore other avenues to apply the science.”

The EPSRC funded project is one of seven nationally funded research calls as part of the ‘Future Formulation of Complex Products’. The project is done in close collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline and inkjet printing technology company Xaar.

New formulations, big applications

One outcome of CORAL is an improvement in the therapeutic qualities in toothpaste. It’s a timely issue as the UK faces a reported ‘oral health crisis’. According to the NHS, nearly half of children aged 12-15 suffer dental issues and nearly 100 teeth removal operations are performed daily with significant costs to the NHS.

“There’s a lot we can do with understanding the basic ingredients,” said Dr Tiwari explaining that the research isn’t about creating new molecules or drugs. Comparatively simple changes to the manufacturing process and better knowledge of how the mixture components interact could deliver substantial improvements in oral health.

“If you improve toothpaste formulations, you can start to actually address some of these dental issues. Simple changes to the toothpaste formulation can make a slightly bigger impact – it’s not just about cleaning anymore. It could take care of any cavities issues or it could take care of any infection related issues.”


Manufacturing challenges and multifunctional toothpaste

“As the formulations evolve and become more complex, this manufacturing process also has more challenges,” said Dr Balabani.

This is in part because of a general lack of understanding of complex fluids. Toothpaste is essentially a mixture of viscous liquid, polymer and solid particles. As such, it exhibits behaviours that are difficult to capture and predict.

The sheer volume of how much toothpaste is produced, the way that some toothpaste is created in batches, and even in the way consumers react to the toothpaste in terms of look, feel and taste, are crucial considerations that become manufacturing challenges.

“If you take a look at a regular household, a considerable fraction of the materials you deal with are actually, fluid mechanically, complex. Toothpaste is one example, shampoo is another example, simple curd is another example, and they tend to have, what is called – non-Newtonian behaviour” said Dr Tiwari.

“It is this behaviour that creates the challenge,” he added, “and we wish employ a few cool techniques such as those using atomic force microscopy, among others, to help address that challenge.”

By overcoming these challenges, the project findings could be applied to any number of complex mixtures that are used in our day to day life.

“Some of the science we’ve tried to tackle has other applications as well and one of the applications is inkjet printing,” said Dr Balabani, “the focus of the project is on oral health formulations – but applications of the fundamentals – we hope – are going to be fairly wide. In fact, a lot of the techniques we will be applying in this research we have developed through our work with human blood behaviour and 3D printing mixtures.”

Article by Colin Ho.

Photo courtesy of Kenneth Lu (creative commons)

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