CHICAGO — For a decade, Bob Chikos remained loyal to one toothpaste: Rembrandt’s Gentle White. Without it, he was often plagued by painful canker sores that made it difficult to swallow for weeks on end.
Then the manufacturer discontinued the product, blindsiding Chikos and other longtime users. The move has inflated the price of the toothpaste from $6.99 to about $50 on eBay for a 3-ounce tube and provoked ongoing backlash on Rembrandt’s Facebook page.
“I can’t believe you took this off the market!” Chikos of Cary, Ill., posted in November, echoing other disgruntled consumers. “This was a miracle product. … I would gladly pay DOUBLE what they were being sold for. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE bring it back, or at least give the recipe and rights away to a company that will.”
Consumer goods are regularly pulled from shelves for a variety of reasons, including low sales, safety concerns and the natural end of a product’s life cycle. A spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, the brand’s parent company, cited “higher consumer demand for our other Rembrandt products.”
But emotions run high when a company kills a product that consumers have come to rely on. Devotees were outraged when a popular contraceptive sponge vanished from the market in 1994 and when o.b. Ultra tampons disappeared in 2010. People even protested the loss of White Cloud toilet paper.
“It’s a bad intersection — the taboo zone of health or safety and money,” said Ann McGill, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “We don’t like to think that things like health and safety have a dollar value attached. So when the company has been forced to say, ‘It’s not worth it,’ the customer says, ‘What do you mean? Where did that come from?’”
A similar form of despair and anger occurs when a beloved television show is canceled, McGill said.
“There is the sense of the intrusion of profitability, when it should be about something more profound,” she said. “It’s as if all of a sudden corporate suits have come in and destroyed it.”
As Gentle White has grown scarce and expensive, fans have pleaded to save the brand, which was marketed as a whitening toothpaste gentle enough for mouths prone to canker sores.
In emotional Facebook posts, they mourn the loss of what is frequently called a “life-changing” product. Many write that they have tried alternative toothpastes or canker sore treatments but that nothing works as well.
Longtime user Lindsey Walenga, 29, said she was “devastated” when she realized it was gone.
“I already have a canker sore and can hardly read my daughter books,” said Walenga, of Royal Oaks, Mich. “I’m doomed.”
“I do understand they need to reach a certain sales volume, but there is an aspect of social responsibility as well,” said Ed Werdell of Libertyville, Ill., who paid $450 for 15 tubes for his 23-year-old son. “This is not a burger. It actually does change people’s lives.”
Johnson & Johnson, whose McNeil-PPC division acquired Rembrandt in 2005 from Procter & Gamble’s Gillette, declined to answer questions about the discontinuation but said users of Gentle White are encouraged to try Rembrandt Intense Stain toothpaste. Neither product contains sodium lauryl sulfate, a common foaming agent known to irritate sensitive mouths. But Intense Stain does contain sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, another ingredient that some prone to canker sores try to avoid.
“We do not make these kinds of decisions lightly and we will make sure that our marketing team is aware of your disappointment,” Rembrandt posted in response to a plea from Werdell to revive Gentle White. Addressing another panicked customer, the company wrote: “Unfortunately we do not have plans to put this product back on the market.”
“I hated their response,” said John Lawrence, 60, of Woodland Hills, Calif., who has been using the product for 15 years; his son also relies on it. “They’ve damaged their brand as far as I’m concerned. I’d really think twice before using another Rembrandt product. This is really personal.”
Brands often go wrong when they forget that they are really businesses and “start presenting themselves as a very best friend,” McGill said.
“A best friend doesn’t drop the product,” she said. “Violating trust like that could give you a problem with those same consumers in the future when you wanted to launch a new product. Customers could hold it against you.”
Rembrandt began offering Canker Sore Toothpaste for sensitive mouths in 1993, reformulated the product in 2008 and changed the name to Gentle White in 2012. McNeil-PPC discontinued the toothpaste later that same year, according to Johnson & Johnson, though many consumers did not feel the impact until stocks dwindled near the end of 2013.
At least 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from canker sores, also known as aphthous ulcers, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The sores can linger for weeks on the gums, tongue or cheeks, making it difficult to eat, swallow or talk. Though some medications can reduce the pain, there’s no universally accepted treatment.
For some people, simply biting the inside of the cheek or eating certain foods can trigger an outbreak. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis have a greater tendency to develop the mouth sores, either as a symptom or because of nutritional deficiencies. Some cancer patients also report greater mouth sensitivity after undergoing chemotherapy.
Stress also can be a trigger, said Dr. Tim Stirneman of All Smiles Dental in Algonquin, Ill., who tells his patients that canker sores generally go away without treatment in about 10 days. “We’ve found it helps if they use a nonfoaming toothpaste,” he said.
Research on how sodium lauryl sulfate affects the recurrence and healing of canker sores has yielded mixed results. A 2012 study published in the journal Oral Diseases found that an SLS-free toothpaste did not reduce the number of ulcers and episodes. It did, however, shorten the healing process and reduce pain.
Before finding Gentle White, Evanston’s Ted Perez, 42, used benzocaine to numb his canker sores. Perez said he started brushing with the toothpaste in 2007 after reading that SLS-free toothpastes might be beneficial.
Once he switched, “I was amazed that the occurrence of canker sores/mouth ulcers diminished to nothing,” he said.
Perez was “distraught” when he learned that Gentle White had been discontinued but now uses an SLS-free toothpaste from Tom’s of Maine, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive.
Others say alternative products haven’t worked for them.
“The sores sprout right up,” said Chicago’s Lauren Barone, whose husband splurged and bought her a $50 tube of Gentle White on Amazon to relieve her misery.
Some are hoping that consumer pressure will revive the product, something more probable in the age of social media. Quisp cereal, abandoned because of low sales in the 1970s, was relaunched as the “first Internet cereal.” Cadbury reintroduced the Wispa chocolate bar in 2007 after a consumer uprising, calling it a “brand loyalty success story.” The contraceptive sponge, o.b. Ultra tampons and White Cloud toilet paper also have returned to the market.
Chikos said he is using a relatively small toothpaste brand called Squigle for now — he ordered a case online — and plans to stick with that if it works.
But if Gentle White were to come back, and the canker sores reappeared, “I’d pay a good amount — $15 to $25 — for it,” he said. “It’s just like a prescription. I don’t think a couple of hundred dollars a year is too much to keep me from suffering from mouth pain.”