If you’re like me, a neurotic nineties kid with a serious addiction to WebMD, then you’ve done it. You’ve googled the age-old question that plagues us all during our early twenties:
Is this herpes, or did I just eat too many Sour Patch Kids?
I was twenty-one and living in Los Angeles when my first canker sore outbreak occurred, turning the inside of my bottom lip into what I called “the set of Mars Attacks.” I’d spent the majority of my early twenties making out with Europeans, asking happy hour bartenders if I could use their phone charger, and, of course, attempting to follow my dreams while balancing a full-time job in retail.
When I was young, the occasional white ring would appear somewhere in my mouth if I had eaten too many tomatoes or dived face first into a bottle of hot sauce. But usually only one––a single small halo that hurt like bloody hell, that I knew would disappear in just two or three days. This outbreak was different. This was three, then four, then five multiplying inside my mouth just like––well––just like herpes. Or so I thought.
Needless to say, I was a no-show at work that morning and the first sobbing patient in line at urgent care, self-diagnosing myself with the STD that keeps on giving. Mumbling “WHAT THE F–CK,” I painfully pulled down my bottom lip for the doctor to examine. His facial expression was blank, and his only words of wisdom were “Hmm, it’s not herpes, but it’s something,” which made absolutely nothing better. “Do you smoke cigarettes?” he asked. Did I smoke cigarettes? I was twenty-one. I smoked, snorted, swallowed anything that was placed in front of me and was free.
I spent the next sleepless six months in and out of doctor’s offices, begging allergists, dermatologists, and men’s clinics to diagnose me with something, anything at all. I was losing my mind. “Someone just tell me I have herpes, or syphilis, or a vitamin B deficiency, please! You’re missing something.”
“Your blood work is clean, Jordan. You’re healthy as an ox,” my GP said. I’ve always hated that simile, healthy as an ox. Oxen are disgusting and smell of pure feces. “Healthy as Serena Williams” works much better. “Try and relax… Stress less.” That was my prescription––to navigate my twenties and “stress less.”
Panicked, I searched for answers among anonymous blog posts and online forums where users called themselves “Swim” and “Simon Says.” Do I send all my exes “lip-pics” and falsely accuse them of giving me herpes, or will that make me feel worse? Emotional rock bottom hit during the sudden realization that I couldn’t eat anything remotely sharp. Tortilla chips, French bread, men––all of my favorite things had been taken from me during the best summer of my life.
So, I started to experiment.
I prayed, and prayed, and prayed. I changed my diet. I stopped having sex. I read The Secret. I cut gluten and alcohol. I even almost gave up coffee. Still, my bottom lip remained covered in tiny sores almost a year later. My happiness was disintegrating. My dating life was dust. What the hell was left?
Then, during a dark and deep web-search spiral around 2am, I came across an answer. What was I using in my mouth, every day, without fail? Duh. Toothpaste. Not just any toothpaste. ADA (American Dental Association) approved, cavity protecting, tartar reducing, name brand toothpaste––with added fluoride. My heart stopped. I re-directed my search to “toothpaste with fluoride causes canker sores” and came across page after page of results. The simple way to put it:
No more fluoride, no more mouth ulcers.
See, OTC toothpastes with fluoride include the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, which is commonly found in shampoo, mouthwash, and dish detergent. If it’s in your home, foams, and cleans something, it likely contains SLS.
According to Doctor Mark Burhenne and the Massachusetts Dental Society, not only does SLS increase canker sour outbreaks and pain, but it actually breaks down the protective lining of your mouth, stripping away its underlying tissue, leaving your gums irritated and more prone to mouth ulcers. “I can tell when my patients are using a toothpaste with SLS in it because of the sloughing of cheek cells on my intraoral mirror. It’s one of the most recognizable conditions in the mouth.” Disgusting. Who wants the inside of their mouth shedding like a snakeskin? Not me. “In fact, SLS is rated as a high hazard for irritation and a moderate hazard for organ toxicity by EWG's Cosmetic Database,” says Burhenne.
I was optimistic and had all the convincing I needed. Now it was time for a little trial and error. I ran to Trader Joe’s the next morning and invested in TOM’S fluoride free toothpaste, but first I peeped at the ingredients list on the back of the box. SLS free! Hallelujah.
Keep in mind, money-hungry manufacturers hide SLS under various names.
- Monododecyl ester sodium salt sulfuric acid
- Sodium dodecyl sulfate
- Sodium dodecyl sulphate
- Sodium salt sulfuric acid
- Sulfuric acid monododecylester sodium salt
- Sulfuric acid
- Monododecyl ester
- Sodium salt
- Akyposal SDS
- Aquarex methyl
Immediately, I noticed relief from brushing my teeth with fluoride free–SLS free toothpaste. The “sting” was gone. The burn from multiple open sores disappeared. Within the first week, those pesky painful abscesses shrunk in size by about 70 percent. It was working, and my early twenties herpes anxiety diminished. Finally, I could get some sleep, but more importantly I was starting to feel like myself again.
I dumped my Listerine and ADA approved toothpaste, and ordered a surplus of fluoride free–SLS free toothpaste off Amazon.
Just two weeks later, I was canker sore free and back to making out with “randos.” The life I love to live.
Five years later, I’ve had zero canker sores (even after ingesting a family–sized bag of Sour Patch Kids).