CEAS Alumni Revolutionizes Art of Teeth Whitening

By: Shannon Frohme
Date: December 8, 2015

Just when you thought CEAS alumni couldn’t be any more revolutionary—we recently caught up with the lead engineer of Crest Whitestrips and ’93 CEAS alumnus, Paul Sagel. Currently a research fellow at Procter and Gamble (P&G), Sagel holds over 40 patents including Crest Whitestrips, Crest HD and Crest SensiStop.

CEAS Alumni Paul Sagel

CEAS Alumni Paul Sagel

Nobody particularly prefers the coffee-stained teeth aesthetic, but it’s a common blemish that the majority of us combat with at-home teeth-whitening products. However before the year 2000, the average yellow-toothed adversary had to book an appointment with their dentist to achieve a full set of pearly whites. The history of Crest Whitestrips is one of insurmountable trial and error, but nevertheless attaining prestige status as the world’s #1 most trusted and dentist-recommended at-home teeth whitening product.

Several dimensions or layers of the tooth contribute to its perceived color, including, “The transparency of the enamel, the color tone of the underlying dentin and any imbedded staining contained between the dentin and the enamel surface.”1 Counter to what most P&G scientists and experts in peroxide reactions believed at the time of his arrival to P&G in 1993, Sagel was highly convinced that peroxide had the potential to diffuse into teeth and act as a safe whitening agent. Sagel explains, “When I started working on tooth whitening, I immediately saw a beautiful application of Fick’s law and thought to myself that whitening teeth is likely a diffusion limited process rather than a reaction limited process.” Sagel recollects initially learning and becoming inspired about diffusion and transfer phenomena from Glenn Lipscomb, PhD and former professor in the Department of Biomedical, Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering and Applied Science. He continues, “In fact, the mass transfer knowledge and skills I acquired from my degree in chemical engineering at CEAS is the reason why I was able to invent Crest Whitestrips.”

Photo from www.3DWhite.com

Photo courtesy of www.3DWhite.com

“As I started to think about diffusion from my days at CEAS, I formed a hypothesis that very thin layers of peroxide composition would likely be just as effective as a thick layer would be. This turned out to be true. Then, the epiphany came over me—if I only need a very, very thin layer, then I simply need to protect this layer from diluting away with saliva. From there, I made a strip with an adhesive peroxide gel and stuck it on my teeth and instantly thought ‘Eureka—I got it!’” recalls Sagel. That moment—2:30 p.m. on February 18, 1997— was the moment of defining truth that would forever change Sagel’s career. The next challenges on Sagel’s plate included a long-lived process of converting the conceptualization into a marketable teeth whitening product, followed by a painstakingly long year of law suits regarding patent enforcements and advertising disputes.

From Conceptualization to the Shelf

As mentioned previously, peroxide proved to be a pertinent ingredient to the initial Crest Whitestrips formula, despite what the majority of scientists and engineers at P&G thought. Since peroxide is a highly reactive compound, this presented another issue if the product were to sit on a shelf longer than a couple of hours. “The highly reactive nature of peroxide exponentially increases in a thin film where the surface will decompose with oxygen and water. Therefore, the initial prototypes of Whitestrips were only stable for a couple of hours,” explains Sagel. To address this problem, Sagel’s team started tweaking the initial prototype in methodical, hypothesis-based experimentation.

When asked what the key element to successful engineering collaboration is, Sagel responded, “I invented Whitestrips while I was very young with the company (P&G). And in fact, there were more nay-sayers than supporters. During my 23 years at P&G I have learned something very important about collaboration, and it’s that innovation starts with a very small, empowered group.”

Early on in the Whitestrips innovation process, Bob Dirksing, an elite P&G Research Fellow, and young Paul Sagel worked side-by-side. Sagel states, “You can’t plan innovation; it emerges from an ongoing cycle of limitless curiosity, experimentation and observation that appears chaotic to an onlooker.” Dirksing’s wisdom and guidance paired with Sagel’s enthusiastic energy and creativity collectively produced something far superior than the two parts combined.

Needless to say, the dynamic pair increased the prototype’s stability from hours to days, weeks to months, and eventually years. Today, Crest Whitestrips has a shelf life of more than two years, despite what nearly all peroxide experts thought was impossible.

Dodging Relational and Legal Curveballs

The challenges did not cease there for Sagel and the P&G research and development team. When Crest Whitestrips was first set to launch, dentists were still consumers’ prime source for tray-based whitening options. Crest had a strong relationship with the dentist community and did not want their new product to sacrifice the relationship nor the dentists’ multi-million dollar industry. Through careful deliberations and honest conversations, Crest was able to maintain positive relations with dentists. According to Crest, Whitestrips is the #1 dentist-recommended teeth whitening product in the U.S.2

Despite several prosperous overhauls made during the Whitestrips engineering process, there was one more curveball aimed at Crest, this time from their chief competitor—Colgate. In 2003, Colgate claimed that P&G falsely advertised Crest Whitestrips as, “clinically proven to be superior and whiten teeth ‘two times better’ than Colgate’s product, Simply White.”3 After one year of defense—Sagel served as the expert witness and corporate representative—and a unanimous vote later, Colgate lost $79 million to P&G. The case is now used as a case study for the Harvard Business School.

Paul Sagel

A Family of Engineering Innovators

Interestingly enough, Sagel comes from a family of engineers. In his immediate family alone, the following relatives are CEAS Alumni:

  • Leslie Hopkins , sister, ’96 alumna of the Department of Chemical Engineering and current Director of R&D at P&G
  • Greg Hopkins, brother-in-law, ’96 alumnus of the Department of Chemical Engineering
  • Doug Witten, brother-in-law, ’96 alumnus of the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management
  • Ralph Sagel, cousin, ’86 alumnus of the Department of Chemical Engineering and recent retiree at P&G

Additionally, Sagel’s father, two uncles, an aunt and several cousins engineer for Procter & Gamble. Engineering truly runs in the Sagel family bloodline.

While Sagel attended CEAS (1989-1993), he co-oped for The Drackett Co.—the company that engineered Windex and Renuzit Air Freshners. At The Drackett Co., Sagel was the first co-op student to win the President’s Award—an award normally granted to full-time scientists. This company-wide award recognized a long-lasting toilet bowl cleaner solution for which Sagel developed.

Today Sagel holds an appointed research fellow position at P&G—the highest attainable level in the P&G Research and Development (R&D) organization. Out of 8,000 R&D employees, only the top 1% are research fellows. Sagel explains the appointment process, “Significant industry awards, business contributions and revolutionary industry transformations that improve consumer lives, are all considered by the Vice President of R&D and the Chief Technology Officer. Whitestrips is one of the primary contributions that enabled me to reach this level. It has generated over $4 billion in sales, and was named one of the top ten product innovations of the decade (2000-2009) along with the iPod, Wii and Guitar Hero.“

We Engineer Better

Additionally, in 2007, Sagel was awarded the prestigious Gordon E. Moore Medal from the Society of the Chemical Industry (SCI). This award recognizes top global scientists under the age of 45 that utilize chemical engineering and science to improve lives. In 1993, CEAS recognized Sagel for his honorable contributions to chemical engineering with the Herman Schneider award.

It is the truly inspirational stories of individuals like Paul Sagel that demonstrate the revolutionary potential of CEAS engineers to positively impact and transform lives. On behalf of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, congratulations Paul, on your tremendous successes!

1 https://www.3dwhite.com/images/teeth-whitening/3DWhite%20Oral%20Care%20Science.pdf
2 http://crest.com/en-us/oral-care-topics/whitening/how-crest-whitestrips-teeth-whitening-systems-work
3 http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/stories/2004/07/26/daily49.html