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As part of my research in writing a Natural Living Guide for the Chemically Sensitive, I spent countless hours poring through Facebook groups for those suffering from acute chemical sensitivities. One of the many heartbreaking discussions I found was by folks who could barely brush their teeth, if at all, because their toothbrush was literally burning their mouth. Some even claimed their throat would swell, even if they brushed with plain water… so they knew the issue was with the toothbrush and not their toothpaste.
I don’t experience this kind of acute response and perhaps you don’t either. But it definitely got me thinking about the chemicals in my toothbrush and whether I really needed to be swallowing them twice a day.
In this article, we’ll quickly touch on the toxins commonly found in toothbrushes, but we’ll spend most of the time talking about the natural alternatives.
In this article
- What’s in a toothbrush?
- Bamboo toothbrushes (and the natural bristle options)
- 100% natural toothbrush alternative
What’s in a toothbrush?
Most of today’s modern toothbrushes are made with plastic handles and nylon bristles.
Specifically, most handles are made from the type of “safe” thermoplastic that contains polypropylene and/or polyethylene. I put “safe” in quotes because this extensive study found that nearly all commercially available plastic products — including these thermoplastics and those marketed as BPA-free — release estrogenic chemicals, even when the plastic is “unstressed”.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m trying to reach a molar way in the back of my mouth, I’ll inadvertently scrape the handle against my teeth. I’ve also been known to pause my brushing and hang out with a toothbrush clamped between my teeth, while I’m distracted by a conversation, my Instagram feed, or whatever’s being blown up on TV. This scraping and biting are “stress” events for the plastic and can further promote the leaching of chemicals… directly into our mouths.
While these thermoplastics can withstand relatively high temperatures, they aren’t completely impervious to heat. Sterilizing a toothbrush under very high heat — boiling it in water, microwaving it, or putting it in the dishwasher — can also stress the plastic.
Why BPA-free isn’t enough
We’re often lured into buying plastic products labeled as BPA-free (as many toothbrushes are) because we assume that’s a measure of safety. But the aforementioned study found that in some cases, BPA-free plastic products release more estrogenic chemicals than plastic products that contain BPA.
This is because BPA-free products often contain phthalates, which is a family of plasticizers that keep your toothbrush bendy, so you can clean those hard-to-reach places. Unfortunately, phthalates also leach estrogenic chemicals.
Even if there weren’t any studies to show the potential harm from these chemicals, the fact that plastic toothbrushes can trigger the chemically sensitive so much as to burn their mouths is enough evidence for me to make the switch to a bamboo toothbrush or other natural alternative.
On a related note, I used to buy Preserve toothbrushes, because I love that their products are manufactured from recycled plastics. I still do use their razors (particularly their 5-blade razor, which actually performs a thousand times better than my fancy pants stainless steel razor). But I no longer use their plastic toothbrushes, simply because of the potential leaching.
Returning to the Facebook forums that I mentioned earlier… what advice did the longtime chemically sensitive end up sharing with the newbies? A few folks had solved their problem by switching to a metal toothbrush, though most switched to bamboo.
The bamboo toothbrush handles were fine for everyone and many loved that the fact that they’re natural and biodegradable. That said, a few (not many) had a problem with the bristles.
Nylon vs. boar’s hair toothbrush bristles
Bamboo toothbrushes typically come with nylon bristles. Even though nylon is a type of plastic, it does not seem to trigger a reaction for most chemically sensitive folks. Those who did have an issue with nylon bristles often opted for boar (pig) hair bristles.
Still, some said they couldn’t use boar bristles either. I’m not sure why, as no one explained what would happen if they did brush with boar hair. It could be for sensitivity reasons, as boar’s hair is sourced from China, where manufacturing regulations tend to be loose and chemical use tends to be high. Or it could be because boar hair comes from animals and the non-users could be vegan.
Boar hair is a by-product of the meat industry, which can be both inhumane and chemical-laden. The hair itself is harvested after the boar has been slaughtered, but there is no telling how the animal was treated when it was alive or what kinds of growth hormones, antibiotics or other contaminants it was fed. It’s also worth noting that contaminants may make their way into their hair follicles, possibly triggering a reaction for the acutely sensitive.
I’m vegetarian, but I wanted to test boar hair toothbrushes to see whether I’d feel comfortable recommending them for those who couldn’t handle nylon bristles. So far, I’ve only tested one brand, but despite their high ratings on Amazon, I thought they were just ok. I had the same problem that others reported in their reviews, which is that the bristles fell out pretty easily. But not everyone had that experience, so who knows.
After giving it a shot, I went back to a bamboo toothbrush with charcoal-infused nylon bristles.
Some bamboo toothbrushes are labeled as having “charcoal” bristles without further explanation. Just a head’s up, these are actually nylon bristles that are infused with charcoal… not pure charcoal.
Some manufacturers are transparent about this and some fail to mention the nylon part, presumably to sound like they’re completely plastic-free. Don’t be fooled.
Some brands say their bamboo toothbrushes are biodegradable. The bamboo handle definitely is, but the nylon bristles are questionable. Nylon bristles can be made from nylon-4 or nylon-6. Supposedly, nylon-4 can biodegrade, but nylon-6 cannot.
Some manufacturers claim their nylon bristles are biodegradable without specifically saying they are nylon-4. One plastic-free blogger had her toothbrush tested to see if their claims were true, but they were not. Their bristles turned out to be nylon-6, not nylon-4… which meant their “biodegradable” claims turned out to be false.
The offending brand, The Environmental Toothbrush Company, has since updated their website and claims that, despite what other brands may say, they know of no bristles on the market made from nylon-4. They also say their nylon manufacturer misled them into thinking otherwise. (I wouldn’t be surprised to find that’s true.)
To compost a bamboo toothbrush without worry, simply grab a pair of pliers and remove the bristles, along with the staple that holds them in place. Nowwwww you’re free to toss the bamboo into the compost bin.
Good to know
While plastic toothbrushes tend to be packaged in even more plastic, bamboo toothbrushes usually come in recycled or recyclable cardboard. Some use a small amount of plastic, so you can see the toothbrush. But it’s far less plastic than the large commercial companies use.
My personal toothbrush choice
I like this bamboo toothbrush for a few reasons. First, it works well. Second, they clearly state in the description that their bristles are “infused” with charcoal (not that they “are” charcoal). They also clearly call out the “handle” (only) as being biodegradable and are transparent that the bristles are made from soft nylon. Their packaging is 100% recyclable cardboard – no plastic window. And they number the handles, so no one in your household accidentally uses someone else’s toothbrush.
I don’t love that they say their toothbrush is easy to recycle without stipulating that you have to remove the nylon bristles first. I would prefer if they were more clear on that. However, I haven’t seen any brands that offer this info in their description, so I’m happy to give them a pass.
100% natural toothbrush alternative
There is another toothbrush option that is popular in India and the Middle East, but that most folks in the west have never heard of. It is a natural tooth cleaning twig, commonly referred to as a “miswak” or “sewah”.
This is not a man-made toothbrush at all; rather it is literally a stick that is cut from the roots of the arak (peelu) tree or the neem tree. Teeth-cleaning twigs are not the most pleasant-tasting and can take some getting used to. In fact, most of their negative Amazon reviews are by those who couldn’t get past the taste — not because they didn’t work.
If you can get used to it, miswaks are said to have natural antibiotic properties. They are free from plastic and chemicals. And some say they possess anti-addictive properties that help to reduce the urge to smoke. Interestingly, you don’t even need to use toothpaste with a miswak stick.
To use a miswak twig:
- Chew the bark off one end.
- Chew on the tip a little, until it forms soft bristles.
- Dip the tip in water.
- Brush your teeth, tongue, and gums. (Don’t scrub too hard and do be sure to hit all the hard-to-reach spots.)
- Trim off the old bristles every few days.
- Store it in a dry place.
A clean, healthy smile
For those of you who can make the switch to a miswak twig, I salute you. There is no more natural way to brush your teeth, for sure! But if you can’t get past the taste, give bamboo toothbrushes a go. They’re definitely easy to find these days. And so long as the nylon bristles don’t bother you, they’re a great alternative to plastic toothbrushes. Plus, if (like me) you’re easily distracted by your favorite show or Instagram feed while brushing, you don’t have to worry that you’re chomping down on plastic.