Another ripoff at the store

August 22, 2022 • 8:45 am

A couple of years ago I had a sensitive tooth, and my dental hygienist recommended that I try Sensodyne or one of the other sensitivity-reducing toothpastes. I bought the generic CVS brand, and it worked.

These toothpastes work because they contain potassium nitrate, which blocks pores in the teeth that allow hot or cold foods to get close to the nerve. This article notes that you might be able to stop using the toothpaste after a while to see if the sensitivity has disappeared. (I should do that as I’ve never stopped using the stuff.)

At any rate, I ran out to the CVS yesterday for a new tube. It turns out that the larger tube of Colgate “Sensitive” toothpaste was a better value per ounce than the house brand, so I bought that. But, like all “sensitive” toothpastes, it carries a big premium in price. The tube below cost, including tax, $7.39.  SEVEN DOLLARS AND THIRTY NINE CENTS for six ounces of toothpaste, and that was relatively cheaper than the other “sensitive” brands.

Do you know what that toothpaste works out per pound? $19.70: more than twice as much as I pay for T-bone steak!  And if you look at the ingredients (picture below), what you’re paying extra for is one ingredient: 5% potassium nitrate (all toothpastes now have fluoride). Working out the cost of that ingredient, 5% of 6 ounces yields 0.3 oz of the potassium nitrate in the tube. Now being a lab biologist, I’ve ordered sodium potassium nitrate, and believe me, it’s not expensive: you can buy a pound of the stuff for about ten bucks, and you’d better believe that Colgate gets it for far less than that.

Comparing the price to that of regular toothpaste sans potassium nitrate, I calculate that I’m paying about $2 extra for 0.3 oz (8.5 grams) of potassium nitrate, which works out to about $107 per pound of the stuff!

Can someone explain this to me? Are they ripping off the consumers who need the stuff because they have sensitive teeth? Is this another case of Big Pharma taking advantage of people’s needs?

Sensitive toothpaste (and, to be sure, all toothpaste) is one of those items that’s now way overpriced, like sliced white bread at the grocery store, coffee from a barista, and, of course, the ever shrinking large tubs of ice cream. I won’t get into the “shrinking size” scam, but recently I bought cans of black beans at the store, and noticed that what once was a 16 ounce can of black beans had shrunk to 15.5 ounces at one store and 15 ounces at another.  (One of those store was “honest” Trader Joe’s.) This sneaky downsizing of products, bit by tiny bit, is just another way of ripping us off, for who is going to notice the loss of half an ounce of beans?

Consumers arise and revolt!

Yes, I know that “supply chain” problems have made food—and nearly everything else—more expensive. But go ahead and kvetch, especially about things that you find grossly overpriced for what you get.

51 thoughts on “Another ripoff at the store

  1. Well, how about prescription eyeglasses.? They are grossly overpriced in the store. On-line stores are beginning ( a few years now) to sprout up – and from my experience charge around 1/5–1/8 the price for a pair of tri-focal, now called progressive, lenses in a frame of your choice including clip on sun glasses, coatings etc. Service has been prompt and excellent and responsive.

      1. Yes, four years ago I got a new prescription and on the advice and experience of a friend got the prescription filled on-line. The frames were priced at $28.00ca and the lenses and assembly and whatever else brought the price up to $80.00. These glasses have been just fine for four years– sturdy and good looking. Recently I repeated the exercise with a new prescription and am equally satisfied. It cost $150 this time. I also bought ( why?) another pair of glasses – same prescription which cost close to $800 thru the optometrist who gave me the prescription. They are good also.
        There are several sites on-line now. However the one I have gone thru and vouch for is ZENNI Optical in both Canada and US.

  2. “This sneaky downsizing of products, bit by tiny bit, is just another way of ripping us off, for who is going to notice the loss of half an ounce of beans?”

    Yes, you know how to boil a frog without it noticing, right?
    One of the biggest rip-offs that come to mind is hearing aids. There’s nothing hi-tech or expensive to make these tiny devices, yet they charge exorbitant amounts for them; and don’t get me going on realtor commissions.

  3. As an engineer who grew up with slide rules, i still tend toward making ballpark estimates for calculations. For example, Some years ago, whether it was 15, 25, or 35 of us going out for a pizza and beer lunch, it always worked out to $7/person incl tip, so I could quickly get everybody’s contribution, pay the waitress and get back to work. At the market last week i bought six ordinary grocery store type items…$30+ some change at the register. I now ballpark the cost of my basket at simply $5/item! Yikes! (Hmmmm…maybe my insomnia (please see my comment in hili below) has something to do with this)

    1. If American food outlets paid service staff a proper living wage the whole tip charade would be what it should be, for good service & good food. It should be otherwise included in the total.

      I must add this is not an attack on you Jim!

    2. “As an engineer who grew up with slide rules …”

      What’s the cost of a pocket protector these days, Jim? 🙂

        1. True, but a slide rule at the ready on the hip and a plastic protector in the pocket went together like love & marriage, like a horse & carriage.

        2. Yep…two different functions. The pocket protector did just that..protected the shirt from ink from leaky or unretracted ball point pens, and lead marks and holes from sharp or mechanical pencils. Slide rule for calculating. Carried six incher in my breast pocket; left longer one on desktop…when a desktop was really the top surface of a wooden physical desk, kids!

      1. Ha! Don’t know what they cost these days, Ken. Even i have gone over to the dark side and now carry smallest iphone in my breast pocket…and i must say it makes it damn difficult to make a quick note for someone. You kids get off my lawn!

  4. Do you have a CVS card? Because I am registered with them, each week for the past several months they have emailed me a coupon for 40% off any one non-sale item. The coupon is good for one week. I don’t know how long CVS will continue to do this. I take advantage of the coupon only occasionally (I don’t do much shopping at CVS), but when I do I don’t feel that I have been ripped off as much.

    1. I used to use CVS. I got one of those discount coupons, went through the store and every single item I looked at was “on sale,” the coupon was worthless, just got me into the store.

    1. I never look at the price of toothpaste, but will, as I am sure it is not that high. I buy it on offer in advance & that maybe once a year. In my grandparents day they removed ALL your teeth, then people wore dentures! Insane…

  5. I reordered checks for the first time this month since May of 2019. The voice on the phone proudly told me that I’d be paying the same $14 dollars for my 80 checks as I did back then. Of course I got 100 checks with my last order.

  6. I just looked and was surprised to see that the Colgate Sensitive 6oz tube is $5.49 at my local Wegmans, so less than in the Chicago area. Luckily, I’m not sensitive, and I can still buy Aim for $1.19 at the same Wegmans.

  7. Kinda the other side of the inflation woes. I live half the year in France and half in California. I’m in France now and the inflation has been cancelled by the much better exchange rate. The dollar and the euro are just about equal in value now, a 12 or 14 per cent improvement from a year ago. I’m eating lots of great french meals, good cheese, foie gras, etc.

      1. By which I mean all that great French cuisine you’re eating at reasonable prices has us as green with envy as the Chartreuse you’re probably drinking on the cheap as a digestif. 🙂

  8. Yeah. It’s expensive. The reason is that products are priced based on what the market will tolerate, not on the cost of the production. It’s more about “perceived value” than actual cost. It can be exasperating. Of particular note is the “shrinkage” we’ve seen over the years, as you’ve discussed. Ice cream! I share the frustration.

    What if you were to buy some regular fluoride toothpaste and add your own potassium nitrate? if you do this, use a good balance and measure carefully!

  9. What gets me with toothpaste is, why do they all have mint flavoring in them? I had a mouth problem a few years ago and the stuff hurt my mouth. I know of one brand which does not have mint, at least here in France: Homeophytol. It’s made for the homeopathic crowd, of which I am not a member.

  10. Order a large enough quantity of sodium nitrate and we might get a call from Home Land Security.

    As a kid I can remember walking into the local chemist (pharmacist) and buying sodium nitrate for my gunpowder experiments.

    And after minimal research it appears it is the potassium that does the clogging (I wondered how could nitrate do this and now wonder why choose nitrate as a counter ion?)

  11. Can’t you just not buy toothpaste if you think it, or one of its ingredients, is too expensive? Make your own from baking soda and add a little sodium nitrate which, you say, is cheap and easy for you to get. Drink tap water to get fluoride. Or, even better, invest in toothpaste companies or any other companies that you think are making obscene profits. If you buy enough preferred stock, you’ll make enough in dividends to purchase all the fancy toothpaste you’ll ever need.

    Why should manufacturers listen to people who scream at them but still buy their products?

    By the way, pace Colin, I’m certainly not going to do the experiment, but I don’t think a frog will allow itself to be boiled alive. When the water gets too warm for its liking, it will hop out. It’s hard to imagine why it wouldn’t.

    1. Evidently, if the water’s temperature is raised slow enough, the frog will perish without attempting to jump out.

      1. Ah. I see the confusion. Jerry alluded to his previous purchases of sodium nitrate for his lab and then we all got confused assuming that the nitrate (instead of the cation) was important for tooth sensitivity. But it’s actually potassium you seem to need, as you say, not the nitrate. So salt-substitute KCl might do the trick without raising alarms at Homeland.

        Any alkali metal nitrate can be used as an oxidizer. Potassium nitrate (nitre or saltpetre) was historically used—yes, I used to buy it in quantity from indulgent druggists (what you call chemists)— because natural deposits arising from guano exist in abundance and can be made by the dung water method (q.v., Wiki). KNO3 was also used as fertilizer from antiquity because, we now know, plants need both ions. Sodium is toxic to [edit: terrestrial] plants.

        Modern potassium salts are made from potash, mined in enormous quantities in Saskatchewan.

  12. And another thing….

    Have you noticed that Covid and “supply chain” have become universal excuses?

    Our grocery store soda shelves were almost completely empty the other day. While we were checking out, my wife mentioned that to the clerk. “Um, Supply chain.” Really? The soda is bottled at various places all across the country. It’s not coming from China. Our interstates are open. Our truckers are truckin.’ Amazon brings me the most amazing and the most trivial things within a day or two. Supply chain has become the universal excuse. I’m skeptical.

  13. Potassium nitrate costs about $5 per pound retail. They are ripping you off, because they can. Probably the cost of all the toothpastes is primarily the packaging and shipping. They came up with a price for the standard tube that the market will bear, and charge more for specialty versions, even if the cost to manufacture is the same.

    1. It would have to be food-grade saltpetre, not just plant food. So there is that.
      But how is it a rip-off if you willingly pay the seller’s price? And it is certainly “willingly”—toothpaste manufacturers cannot tax, they can only offer for sale. Now if the toothpaste was labeled as containing KNO3 and it didn’t really have any, or contained less than the net weight indicated, well, yes, that would be a rip-off. If it claimed to make your teeth feel better but it didn’t work, then don’t buy it again.

      1. That price was lab grade. The fertilizer sort, we buy by the ton, and costs a lot less than that.
        I was using rip-off in the sense that the item was unnecessarily overpriced, not that there was fraud involved. That was ambiguity on my part.

        Reading a couple of articles about the cost to manufacture the product, it appears that the product itself costs about one cent per ounce to produce, so .06 for the product. Another .03 for the tube, and another .05 for the box.
        Lets generously round the cost up to .20.

        Regular Colgate in the 6 oz tube costs $1.65 on Amazon.
        Colgate Sensitive Complete sells for $4.96
        Assuming they buy the KNO3 in one pound retail packaging, the cost to include it adds less than .02 per tube.

        But here is the rub- Adding KNO3 to the mix means that you use less of the primary ingredient, which is Ca2H4O6P+.
        Obviously, I cannot know what Colgate pays for their ingredients. But the retail cost of KNO3 is less than the cost of Ca2H4O6P+, at least at the suppliers I checked who sell both.
        So the Sensitive Complete costs less to manufacture, but costs three times as much.

        I call shenanigans on Colgate

        1. Good point. The old Consumer Reports Magazine would have had great fun exposing those shenanigans in their “Selling It” column. Mad Magazine did CR the great honour of parodying it. They ran an Onion-style exposé under the CR banner of a meat-packing company that stood accused of adding excess water to its canned hams to bulk up the weight unscrupulously. In the parody, the council of the town where the plant was located retaliated. It raised the water rates to make water more expensive than ham, thus rendering the practice uneconomic.

  14. FYI, Dollar Tree (now more accurately Dollar-Twenty-Five Tree) sells sensitive toothpaste with comparable active ingredients to Sensodyne. A four-ounce tube is $1.25. I’ve been using it for years.

    1. Ah-ha! You made my day. This is exactly what market capitalism would predict: anyone who can make a product cheaper that works just as well will do so. By selling it cheaper he will take market share from his higher-priced competitor. Drug stores may prefer to carry the more expensive name brands because their absolute margin is greater on each tube sold. But no one says you have to buy your toothpaste from them.

      (If I ever need sensitive toothpaste I will know where to look.)


  15. Good to know this. I have used Sensodyne for years. I’ve tried Crest Sensitive and it didn’t work. I’m allergic to regular Colgate, so have never tried it. But am willing to try the Dollar Tree brand. Thanks for the info.

    And yes, I periodically go off it, but soon go right back to it. 😉

  16. Last year with a slight eye problem I went to CVS (there are two drugstores in Manhattan, not like a lot of choice) for some eye drops. Getting them home I read “Homeopathic” on the pack in tiny letters – I went bananas.
    I marched back – furious – to get my Money back (which they did). I felt like burning down the store, I felt robbed.
    The Center for Inquiry is suing CVS etc for doing this, something I wrote an article about actually.

  17. I heard Sensodyne has a lower quantity of abrasive than conventional toothpaste. Of course it is not trivial to ascertain, but there’s some sense to it.

  18. At Costco, you can still get two half gallon containers of vanilla ice cream packaged together. And the ice cream is really good!

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