If anything can make you think twice about putting your toothbrush in your mouth, it’s the fact that its bristles may harbor tiny particles of poop.
Lest we forget, we brush our teeth in the same room as our toilet. At least one study shows that poop particles (scientifically referred to with a straight face as “bacterial aerosols”) have a vertical spray nearly 3-feet high, when you flush. Another says the plume can reach as high as 6-feet.
So, if your toothbrush is on a shelf above the toilet or on the near side of the bathroom counter, you may want to stop reading this article for just a second and go move it. Also, now’s a good time to create a new habit of closing the lid before flushing and requiring your family and guests do the same.
All this said, flushing the toilet isn’t the only activity that contributes to germs on your toothbrush. Our mouths are chock-full of bacteria and brushing our teeth transfers it to our toothbrush. When the bristles are left moist, the bacteria have a friendly environment to call home… and to grow in numbers.
This article will cover how to keep your toothbrush germ-free by recommending the best way to store it, how to disinfect it, and how often to replace it.
Where should you store your toothbrush?
While storing your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet can keep it safe from toilet spray, that isn’t going to solve the problem entirely. As mentioned, even brushing our teeth contributes bacteria to the toothbrush. Bacteria like the dark and they love moisture, so an enclosed medicine cabinet isn’t your best option.
The American Dental Association agrees that “toothbrushes have been shown to harbor bacteria, including fecal coliform bacteria, that can be released into the air when the toilet is flushed.” They also say that “storing a moist toothbrush in a closed container promotes microbial growth more so than leaving it exposed to the open air.” Of course, the ADA also says it’s a good idea to put fluoride in our drinking water, so I don’t always trust their expert opinion. In this case, however, I do have to agree.
Instead of storing your toothbrush inside a dark cabinet, keep it in the open air to help it dry faster. And instead of laying it flat, where water can sit for a while, keep it in an upright position, so the water can drip away from the bristles, allowing it to dry more quickly. If more than one person brushes their teeth in the same bathroom, it’s also a good idea to use a proper holder (instead of a cup) to keep the toothbrushes from touching each other.
I found the below toothbrush holders on Amazon. I like the one on the left for single-toothbrush households, because it’s made from naturally anti-bacterial rock sediment, called diatomite. I like the stainless steel option for families, because the toothbrushes won’t touch each other and the design is easy to clean and keeps water from lingering. This particular holder can also be mounted to the wall (even further away from any toilet spray) or it can be kept on the counter.
How to disinfect your toothbrush
To keep your toothbrush free from bacteria, you’ll need to disinfect it every few days. Don’t worry, it’s super easy to do. But first, let’s talk about how NOT to disinfect your toothbrush.
Do NOT boil it, microwave it, or put it in the dishwasher. A lot of sites recommend decontaminating your toothbrush this way, but most toothbrushes are made from plastic with bristles made from nylon (which is also a type of plastic). While these plastics are generally designed to withstand heat, I wouldn’t risk pushing their limits repeatedly, as you might encourage them to leach plastic particulates into your mouth, as you brush. (To see why this is important, read Is Your Plastic Toothbrush Burning Your Mouth.)
To be fair, this leaching of plastic is more a worry for the polyethylene handle than for the nylon bristles. But seeing as they come as a package deal, best to stick to the healthier alternative.
And by the way, please do not spray your toothbrush with bleach, as I’ve seen recommended on other sites. Chlorine is highly toxic and can leave behind a residue that you do not want in your mouth.
Safer ways to disinfect your toothbrush
Hydrogen peroxide and Listerine are both safe ways to disinfect your toothbrush.
Folks who are chemically sensitive may not fair well with Listerine, thanks to its high concentration of alcohol and of essential oils that contain powerful eucalyptol, menthol, thymol, and methyl salicylate. Folks who are not sensitive to chemicals may be ok.
That said, 3% hydrogen peroxide (which is the kind found in drug stores and supermarkets) is extremely well-tolerated by the chemically sensitive. This study shows that hydrogen peroxide is not only equally as effective as Listerine; it is also far less expensive.
Whichever you choose, the study recommends immersing your toothbrush bristles for 20 minutes, every 3 days. I also do a quick spray of hydrogen peroxide on the bristles both before and after brushing, though I haven’t seen any studies regarding whether that practice helps.Force of Nature(an electrified cleaning solution salt + water + vinegar) is also effective at disinfecting your toothbrush. That said, I’d only spray Force of Nature AFTER you’ve brushed your teeth because, while vinegar is completely safe and natural, it doesn’t exactly taste great.
Finally, don’t forget to also wash your toothbrush holder every week or so, in order to clear out any bacteria from dripped / sitting water, as well as to clean any residual toothpaste.
When should you replace your toothbrush?
As a general rule, you should replace your toothbrush every three to four months, or sooner if the bristles become frayed or matted.
Early studies recommend that, if you catch a cold, you should change your toothbrush at both the beginning and end of the illness. They also suggest that patients undergoing chemotherapy should replace their toothbrush every 3 days, while other medically compromised folks should change their toothbrush every 3 to 7 days. Yikes – that’s a lot!
This can be pretty expensive and impractical for anyone with long-term illness and it doesn’t seem that the researchers, who conducted these early studies, considered the more economical option of disinfecting the toothbrushes, instead of replacing them. The later study (referenced above) suggests that regularly decontaminating your toothbrush with hydrogen peroxide completely eliminates the need for such frequent replacements.
If you are consistent with disinfecting your toothbrush, you shouldn’t have to worry about bacteria build-up But, if you’re not consistent and you see the bristles begin to change color (sometimes a pinkish tone), bacteria may be growing and it’s time to replace the toothbrush, no matter how long you’ve owned it.
BOTTOM LINE: Replace your toothbrush every 3 months or sooner, if the bristles wear down or begin to change color.
For a sanitary toothbrush:
- Rinse your toothbrush well after each use.
- Give it a good shake to remove excess water.
- Store it upright in the open air and let it dry.
- Sanitize your toothbrush for at least 20 minutes, every 3 days.
- Replace it every 3 to 4 months.
As a final note, plastic handles (and sometimes the nylon bristles) can create serious issues for the chemically sensitive. If brushing your teeth makes your mouth burn or your throat swell up, you might consider switching to bamboo or another natural, plastic-free alternative.