The Ultimate Guide To Picking Out A Sustainable Toothbrush
Congratulations, people of North America. Seventy percent of us brush our teeth twice a day. It seems that our dentists’ nagging has finally paid off.
Good for our teeth, but not so good for the planet. The American Dental Association recommends replacing your toothbrush every three months. When you multiply four toothbrush replacements per year by the US population of 328 million, you can estimate that over one billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away in the US every year.
Sure, not everybody replaces their toothbrushes as often as the ADA says they should, or even brushes for that matter. And there are a lot of poorly cited numbers thrown around on the internet by those who rightfully want to emphasize the massive impact of our dental hygiene. But even if you don’t take these figures at face value, I personally guarantee that at any given beach you’ll find a toothbrush lying alongside the seashells.
The Problem with Traditional Toothbrushes
Plastic has been the toothbrush material of choice for the past few decades. Specifically, polypropylene and nylon (both of which are usually petroleum-based) constitute both the brush handles and the bristles, respectively. Almost anything plastic will leach chemicals, especially in the outdoor elements. So when plastic toothbrushes end up in a landfill- or worse, in the ocean- the toxins leak into the surrounding environment, contributing to soil and ocean acidification. Worse yet, the production of most nylons produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2.
Moreover, toothbrushes are hard to recycle. Because the bristles and the handle are often made from different plastics, they need to be separated and sorted into the appropriate recycling bins. Obviously, this isn’t common knowledge and the vast majority brushes don’t get disassembled. When a toothbrush does make it to a recycling facility, its long handle often clog the machines.
Speaking of the long handle- toothbrushes have an unnecessarily wasteful design. The head of the toothbrush, rather than the handle, should get replaced. While the bristles start to fray with wear and bacteria builds up on the head, the handle remains perfectly intact and easy to clean. To throw away an entire plastic toothbrush when the majority of it could be reused over and over by simply creating a detachable head is inefficient and unsustainable.
Sustainable Toothbrush Options
Move over, plastic toothbrush. Innovative companies that recognize the environmental threat of plastic toothbrushes are coming up with alternatives to traditional plastic toothbrushes. Here are some better handle and bristle options.
Bamboo is probably the best handle option that we have right now. It’s fast-growing and extremely strong. And you don’t have to worry about taking food away from the pandas, because most bamboo toothbrushes are made with Moso bamboo- which is the hardest part of the wood and consequently inedible.
It’s still plastic, and it’ll probably still end up in the landfill. But it is a better option than buying a brand new toothbrush.
Initially, it’s hard to not laugh at the idea of chewing on a stick to get your teeth clean. But one study found that neem sticks work as well as, if not better, than a traditional toothbrush. Neem sticks, which come from the neem tree, have naturally-occurring phytochemicals and antimicrobial agents that keep germs and plaque at bay.
Nylon-4 is the most common bristle material on bamboo toothbrushes. It’s a form of Nylon that has been shown to biodegrade under certain lab conditions. Of course, our planet is not a lab. Many toothbrushes sold online that claim to use Nylon-4 actually use Nylon-6, which does not biodegrade.
The first toothbrush bristles were made from boar hair, and yup, it’s still a bristle option today. In fact, the only fully biodegradable toothbrushes will have pig hair bristles. Of course, there are ethical considerations when animals are involved. Most pig hair bristles are byproducts of Chinese meat markets. Pig is rough on the gums if not softened under hot water, and the hollow structure of the hairs can cause quick growth of bacteria.
Castor Bean Oil
Castor Bean Oil is actually Nylon-11. So it’s still Nylon, but it’s biobased. This means that petroleum wasn’t an ingredient in its manufacturing, thus having a lesser environmental impact.
Silicone bristles are new to the game, and we’re excited to see how they hold up under the suspicious eye of the dentist. Not only can silicone be burned down into ash without releasing toxic chemicals in the burning process, but it’s bacteria-resistant and relatively gentle on the teeth. Unfortunately, silicone bristles are only available as an option for electric toothbrushes right now.
What to Look for in Your New Toothbrush
Check that both the bristles and - if plastic- the handle are BPA free. BPA is a resin used in many consumer goods, and although it is carcinogenic, the FDA approves it in low doses. Avoid it whenever you can.
We want to protect our teeth and the environment. Nylon bristles are generally soft, but boar’s hair can be a little aggressive on your gums.
If you buy a more sustainable toothbrush, make sure that the packaging is sustainable too. It’s counterproductive to purchase a bamboo toothbrush wrapped in plastic. If you’re shopping online and you’re not sure how a product you’re buying will be packaged, you can try reaching out to the company.
Buy your toothbrush from a reputable company. Although you can get a cheap 10 pack of bamboo toothbrushes on Amazon for a couple of dollars, there is no guarantee that the materials are actually what they claim to be. Some people have found that their “bamboo” toothbrushes actually contain plastic, and that the Nylon-4 bristles are actually Nylon-6. Don’t fall for gimmicky marketing, such as the charcoal-enhanced bristles. Go with companies that have earned a good reputation through transparency.
A Few Toothbrushes We Like
Brush with Bamboo
We like this toothbrush so much that we decided to carry it in our shop! Brush with Bamboo is incredibly transparent; any questions that you have about their products can be answered on their website. As the name indicates, their toothbrushes have bamboo handles. The bristles are biobased 62% Nylon-11 and 38% Nylon-4. Brush with Bamboo acknowledges that their bristles are not perfect, but they’re doing the best that they can. In March 2019, they eliminated any bag from their packaging, and the brush is packaged in a simple compostable cardboard box.
Preserve is our favorite toothbrush made from recycled plastic because they actually enable you to recycle. Through their Gimme5 partnership with Whole Foods, customers can drop off their #5 plastics (usually yogurt cups) to get shipped to Preserve. Number five plastics are some of the safest plastics but are among the least commonly recycled. The bristles are made from Nylon and the wrapper is post-consumer polypropylene, though it doubles as a mailer for when you are ready to send your used brush back to Preserve for recycling.
How to Dispose of your Old Toothbrush
Almost all the plastic ever created still exists today, so the best you can do with your old plastic toothbrush is to make it last longer. Before disposing of your brush, you can repurpose it as a general cleaning brush. Use it to scrub hard-to-reach spots like in the crevices of a faucet, or between shower tiles.
When your brush is on its last leg, call your local recycling center to see if they accept toothbrushes. You’ll probably have to pluck out the bristles before dropping it off, as they’ll go in a different recycling bin than the handle.
If your local recycling center can’t help you, you can mail your brush into Terracycle. You can either mail it yourself or find a local Terracycle drop off location. Terracycle has recycling programs for all sorts of odd and difficult-to-recycle objects.
Obviously, there aren’t any perfectly ethical and plastic-free brushing options besides neem sticks. We highly recommend trying out a bamboo or recycled toothbrush from a reputable company. But always ask questions and do your due diligence. And let us know what your favorite sustainable toothbrush is!