As part of my research in writing this 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 – and unfortunately recurring – 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.
I don’t experience this kind of acute response and you likely 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.
What’s in a toothbrush?
Today’s modern toothbrushes are commonly made of 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 those marketed as BPA-free or using these thermoplastics — release estrogenic chemicals, even when the plastic is “unstressed”.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m not really paying attention or if I’m trying to reach a molar way in the back, 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 being distracted by a conversation 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 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.
BPA-free isn’t enough
We’re often lured into buying plastic products that are 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 may be because many BPA-free products contain phthalates, which is a family of plasticizers that keep your toothbrush bendy, so it 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 plastic’s chemicals, the fact that toothbrushes seriously trigger so many ‘canaries’ is enough evidence for me to make the switch to bamboo or natural alternatives.
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.
Returning to the Facebook forums that I mentioned earlier… what advice did the long time 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 handles were fine for everyone and many loved that they’re natural and biodegradable. But some 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 surprisingly 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 boar bristles. So far, I’ve only tested one brand, but despite their high ratings on Amazon, I thought they were just ok. I experienced the same thing as many who did leave a lower rating, which is that I found the bristles to fall out pretty easily. Not everyone had that experience, so who knows.
After giving it a shot, I went back to a bamboo toothbrush with charcoal-infused bristles.
Some bamboo toothbrushes are sold with “charcoal” bristles. 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 definitely is, but the nylon bristles are questionable. Nylon bristles can (supposedly) be made from nylon-4 or nylon-6.
Nylon-4 can biodegrade, but nylon-6 cannot.
Some manufacturers claim their nylon bristles are biodegradable, usually without going into specifics about the nylon. One plastic-free blogger had her toothbrush tested to see if their claims were true. They were not. Their bristles turned out to be nylon-6, not nylon-4.
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 form nylon-4. They also say their nylon manufacturer misled them into thinking otherwise. (I wouldn’t be surprised to find that’s true.)
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.
By the way, to compost a bamboo toothbrush, 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.
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. They also clearly call out the “handle” as being biodegradable and say the bristles are made from soft nylon. Their packaging is solely recyclable cardboard – no plastic window. And they number the handles, so no one 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. That said, I haven’t seen any brands that offer this info in their description.
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: a natural teeth cleaning twig, commonly referred to as a “miswak”, “Peelu miswak” or “sewah miswak”.
This is not a man-made toothbrush at all; rather it is literally a stick that is cut from the roots of the arak 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 reviews are by those who couldn’t get past the taste.
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 can help to reduce the urge to smoke. Interestingly, you don’t need toothpaste with a miswak stick.
To use a miswak twig:
- Chew the bark off of one end
- Chew the center a little, until it forms soft bristles
- Dip the tip in water
- Brush your teeth, tongue, and gums. Don’t scrub too hard; 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