Metal-containing nanomaterials have the potential to be used in dentistry for infection control, but little is known about their antibacterial properties. This study investigated the toxicity of silver (Ag), titanium dioxide and silica nanoparticles (NPs) against the oral pathogenic species of Streptococcus mutans, compared to the routine disinfectant, chlorhexidine. The bacteria were assessed using the minimum inhibitory concentration assay for growth, fluorescent staining for live/dead cells, and measurements of lactate. All the assays showed that Ag NPs had the strongest antibacterial activity of the NPs tested, with bacterial growth also being 25-fold lower than that in chlorhexidine. The survival rate of bacteria under the effect of 100 mg l(-1) Ag NPs in the media was 2% compared to 60% with chlorhexidine, while the lactate concentration was 0.6 and 4.0 mM, respectively. Silica and titanium dioxide NPs had limited effects. Dialysis experiments showed negligible silver dissolution. Overall, Ag NPs were the best disinfectant and performed better than chlorhexidine. Improvements to the MIC assay are suggested.