Parents who battle their children each morning and night in the tooth-brushing war may have some relief. St. Louis dentist, inventor and retired Chaminade chemistry teacher Dr. Howard Wright has invented Vortex, which bills itself as the world’s first color-changing toothpaste.
Wright, who graduated from the Washington University School of Dental Medicine and who has lived in Sunset Hills for 15 years, released the first tubes of Vortex in early November.
He hopes that the color-changing process, from red and blue to purple, will make kids want to brush their teeth longer and more vigorously. Kids from the Hazelwood Community Center Tiny Tots program were the first to try the FDA-approved Vortex at the Delta Dental Health Theater.
The red and blue toothpaste is dispensed as twin streams that change into purple as the child brushes. The invention, which has been in development for 10 years, is a true delight, according to Wright.
“I think part of being an inventor is you think really wild and then bring it in to reality,” Wright said. “I thought about how to get kids to brush their teeth. What if you got the toothpaste to dance and 'do the Macarena' on their tongue?”
That night, Wright mixed the red and blue colors together, which made a beautiful toothpaste; however when he started brushing, the foaming agent (sodium-lauryl-sulfate or SLS) in the paste made the colors turn white. He abandoned the idea for about three weeks then started to read more about SLS.
"The foaming agent creates about 95 percent of canker sores and when brushing with conventional toothpaste, children find that the heavy foaming makes breathing through the mouth difficult, making the experience frightening," Wright said. "Remove the SLS, make it change color, and you have kids wanting to brush their teeth."
Vortex had about 45 other names in mind before a middle-school focus group chose the final name.
"On cartoons, they always talk about Vortex's. Also, I wanted a name that in Spanish made sense. It means the same thing in Spanish," Wright said.
Once the name and chemicals came together, he had to overcome other roadblocks, including the toothpaste tubes themselves and securing the patent. The Vortex tube must have an interior barrier to separate the red from the blue color.
"Every plastics manufacturer I spoke with told me it couldn’t be done—that no one had ever made a toothpaste tube like that before," Wright said. "I had pretty much given up hope, and was ready to let my patent lapse when I decided to call one last manufacturer. And they had the perfect tube."
Wright said the patent fight also was long and hard, and it took him about five years to get that. Now he gets emails all the time from moms saying that it was always a battle and now their kids will brush their teeth.
"There have been so many problems and the more problems you have the more you delight on the final production. My wife believes in me, my children believe in me. So many times I wanted to quit but I didn’t want to let them down," Wright said.
There are plans for other toothpaste colors in the future—the two obvious ones being yellow and blue to make green. Wright wants to call them Popsicle Orange and Wild Apple. He also wants to have an adult version with whiteners and breath fresheners.
Vortex currently retails for $6.95 and is manufactured in a plant located in Muskegon, MI. Wright hopes to mass produce the toothpaste, which will lower the cost.
“I wake up with dreams of big manufacturers. I’ve sold more toothpaste than I ever dreamed,” Wright said. “Ten years is a long time to spend fighting for your product. But if you truly believe in your invention, the fight is exhilarating.”
Visit the toothpaste's website for more information.