Think that a small container of floss is no big deal? Consider this: Calculations show that if everyone in the U.S. flossed once a day, it would amount to over two billion empty floss dispensers thrown in the garbage each year. And let’s not forget toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, and the deluge of disposables when you visit the dentist.
Plastic is ever-present in the oral care industry, and it’s nearly impossible to clean our teeth without touching a piece of plastic. Oral hygiene is an essential part of our daily routine, but it generates a staggering amount of plastic waste. While conventional dental products keep our teeth clean, they are quite literally damaging the planet.
Luckily, small changes can have a big impact and there are some easy wins that the planet and your teeth will thank you for. From going plastic-free, to embracing refillables, there are a number of ways to build a more eco-friendly oral care routine.
“What is bad for the environment tends to be bad for our health.”—Tracy Fanara, PhD, an environmental engineer
Here are some swaps you can make for a more eco-friendly oral care routine
Before you can make swaps to create an eco-friendly oral care routine, it's important to understand the biggest sustainability problems in your current dental care habits. Here's a look at each step of a typical routine—and what might work instead.
The problem: Plastic toothbrushes
Toothbrushes are largely deemed unrecyclable because of the composite plastics that are difficult to break apart. As a result, in the U.S. alone, an estimated one billion toothbrushes are thrown away each year. This includes electric toothbrushes manufactured by big brands that are firmly wed to plastic, and have a wasteful lifecycle. Reducing this burden on the planet involves choosing materials more wisely; forgoing plastic in favor of natural, sustainable, and longer-lasting materials.
Eco-friendly solutions to consider:
Bamboo toothbrushes: Bamboo is a fast-growing, sustainable, and biodegradable material. However, if the bristles are made of nylon, they won’t break down and will need to be removed from the brush to be disposed of separately. A completely biodegradable bamboo toothbrush would be one with bio-based bristles made from castor oil or boar bristles.
But just because you see bamboo on a label, doesn’t automatically mean it’s sustainable. Sustainability expert Gittemarie Johansen points out that there are gray areas when it comes to bamboo, and increased production to meet demand can result in environmental concerns. She suggests buying from a company that is more transparent about its supply chain. Brush with Bamboo is one such brand, whose bamboo is harvested exclusively from forests that are FSC® Certified well-managed.
Electric toothbrushes: Many believe that manual toothbrushes are no match for the superior cleaning of an electric toothbrush. If that’s you, make sure your next one is designed with the environment in mind. UK-based brand SURI has reimagined the electric toothbrush to deliver a more powerful clean with less impact on the planet. The aluminum body of their brush is long-lasting and one-third the size of standard electric toothbrushes, and their bio-based brush heads (made from plant-based corn starch with bristles made from castor oil) are recyclable via their free recycling program. “Unlike most electric toothbrushes on the market, ours is intentionally designed to be repairable,” says Mark Rushmore, Co-Founder of SURI. “So if a component fails or the battery dies, we can remedy it — so your toothbrush will spend more time in your bathroom and less time in a landfill.”
Post-consumer recycled (PCR) toothbrushes: There are also toothbrushes made of PCR plastic available, which removes plastic items from the waste stream and gives them another life. While it does minimize the amount of virgin plastic needed to produce a product, PCR packaging generally cannot be recycled again since it’s already made from recycled materials.
The problem: Toothpaste tubes
Globally, an estimated one-and-a-half billion toothpaste tubes are discarded each year. Since most tubes are made of mixed materials, they are not recyclable and as a result, end up as waste.
Eco-friendly solutions to consider:
Aluminum tubes: Aluminum is one of the easiest materials to recycle according to environmental engineer Tracy Fanara, PhD, and can be recycled back into itself for a true closed loop. Brands like Davids lean into the mighty material for their toothpaste, highlighting that of all the aluminum produced in the U.S., nearly 75 percent of it is still being used today due to its recyclability. The brand suggests cleaning the tube before recycling it by carefully cutting it open and cleaning out the inside. it can be wise to wad up aluminum into a ball with other aluminum to improve the chances of it being sorted properly for recycling by waste management companies.
Plastic alternative tubes: Dentist-crafted, sustainable oral care brand Elims packages their toothpaste in 100 percent recyclable plastic-alternative tubes made from the husks of sustainably grown sugarcane from renewable forests in Brazil. The empty tubes can be sent back to the brand via prepaid shipping for proper recycling.
Recyclable HDPE tubes: Brands like Colgate have recently made positive strides and rolled out a recyclable tube made from High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), the same #2 plastic used for milk and detergent bottles. Dr. Fanara considers this a bold and necessary first step. “I have faith that the recycling industry will adapt to recycle these new HDPE tubes, but it will take effort to get stakeholders and local governments on board," she says. According to Colgate, recycling these tubes requires no extra steps (rinsing, cutting, or cleaning) before tossing them into the recycling bin. However, because recycling rules can vary depending on your location, Dr. Fanara suggests making sure your local recycling facility accepts them.
Toothpaste tablets: You can also forego the tube entirely, opting for chewable zero-waste toothpaste housed in recyclable and refillable vessels. The tablets activate and foam up with your saliva and wet toothbrush bristles. They are also great for travel, allowing you to count out exactly how many you’ll need.
The problem: Dental floss dispensers
We already know that plastic dispensers generate a significant amount of waste, but the problem with the floss itself is that it’s made of nylon and doesn’t biodegrade. The little spool may seem inconsequential until you consider that the amount of floss used in the U.S. each year could circle the Earth 1,246 times. What’s more, conventional floss may be exposing you to potentially harmful chemicals added to make floss glide more easily between the teeth. “What is bad for the environment tends to be bad for our health,” says Dr. Fanara, who goes on to suggest trying to avoid plastic altogether, especially for single-use products like floss.
Eco-friendly solutions to consider:
Plastic-free floss: Made with bio-based materials like bamboo, corn, or silk fiber, and coated in candelilla wax or beeswax. Many come in small refillable glass jars, allowing you to simply purchase refill spools. Brands like Bite have opted to use polylactic acid (PLA) formulated from corn for their floss, believing it to be superior to the likes of silk and other plastic-free alternatives.
Water flossing: Another great option, particularly for the floss-averse (though it shouldn’t necessarily replace it rather complement it). The device uses pressurized water to dislodge debris between the teeth and below the gum line.
The problem: Mouthwash ingredients and containers
While it appears that dental professionals have polarized views on mouthwash, some consider it not only unnecessary but ineffective and capable of disrupting the oral microbiome. Many are loyal users for its antiseptic and breath-freshening abilities, but it has been reported that the alcohol concentration in mouthwash falls short of an antiseptic effect. Not only that, but alcohol can actually make bad breath worse. Many conventional types of mouthwash also contain other chemical additives that can not only irritate the gums and soft tissues in the mouth but can be harmful to the environment. When we spit mouthwash down the drain, the ingredients end up in local waterways. And let’s not forget the oversized plastic bottles.
Eco-friendly solutions to consider:
Mouthwash tablets: A relatively new innovation making a splash in oral care, made with natural ingredients and designed to be either chewed with a sip of water or dissolved in water. Packaged in recyclable and refillable containers, they are a zero-waste and longer-lasting alternative to conventional mouthwash that is gentle on your mouth and the planet.
Refillable mouthwash: To reduce plastic waste and eliminate having to purchase net-new (and also large and heavy) bottles, dentistry start-up Tend packages their alcohol-free mouth rinse in a refillable glass decanter with concentrate refills in recyclable aluminum vials.
The problem: Practices in dental offices
“Single-use plastics and disposable PPE in the dentist's office, mercury from dental amalgam, silver and lead from x-rays, aluminum and microbeads in toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the impacts on the environment,” says Dr. Fanara. She points to a Harvard study revealing that 70 percent of the mercury load in some U.S. wastewater streams could be linked to the dental industry.
Eco-friendly solution to consider:
Many dental practices are taking the necessary steps to become more sustainable by decreasing the impact of their practice on the environment. This includes reducing waste, conserving water and energy, and harnessing innovations in technology. It's a good idea to touch base with your dental practice to hear how they are consciously taking steps to protect our environment.
Organizations like the Eco Dentistry Association exist to help lead the way to an industry that is cleaner and greener. They aim to educate environmentally-conscious dental patients and help them find practitioners that align with their values for good health and a healthy planet. Because establishing an eco-friendly oral care routine includes finding professionals who care about the environment as much as you do.
8 planet-positive products to make your oral care routine more eco-friendly
Every part of this toothbrush is bio-based (handle, bristles, and box), so you can feel good knowing when it reaches the end of its life it won’t cause any environmental harm. The bristles are made from castor oil and the bamboo handle is FSC® certified.
Made with recyclable plant-based heads and bristles, a slim aluminum body housing a powerful battery that lasts over 40 days. Helpful extras like a UV-C light travel case kill 99.9 percent of harmful bacteria, a magnetic mirror mount frees up sink space, and a charge pebble fully recharges the device in just 4 hours. A 100-day money-back guarantee allows you to try it out risk-free. The brand also measures, makes plans to reduce and then offsets the carbon created by each of its products.
With a variety of types of flavors to choose from, Davids has long been known for packaging their premium toothpaste in recyclable aluminum tubes. Designed for sensitive teeth with the added benefit of whitening power, this paste is fluoride-free but made with nano-hydroxyapatite (n-HA), biocompatible substance experts consider an effective fluoride alternative.
You can kiss tubes goodbye for good with these tablets that come packaged in an aluminum container that can be refilled by purchasing their compostable refill pouches. Subscribing will see to it that your refills get delivered every 4 months. Nano-hydroxyapatite helps to remineralize tooth enamel as an alternative to fluoride.
Made of high-quality biodegradable silk infused with a vegan wax for easy gliding, jojoba oil to soothe the gums, and 100% essential oil flavors (peppermint and cardamom). The refillable glass container is protected with a silicone top, and floss (30 yards) is spun around a sugarcane-based bioplastic spool. Refills are shipped carbon-neutral in compostable pouches.
Made from corn fiber that is fully compostable and certified bio-based by USDA, this floss is coated with candelilla wax and flavored with ginger and mint. Each spool has 50 meters of floss and comes packaged in a durable, refillable stainless steel jar. Refills come with two spools.
Free from harsh chemicals, these tablets last seven times longer than a conventional 500 ml bottle of mouthwash and save approximately 14 plastic bottles per year from ending up in landfills. Dissolve in a small amount of water and gargle for at least 30 seconds. They are also a Certified B Corp brand which ensures a company is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency.
There’s no need to hide that oversized bottle of Listerine with this mouth rinse packaged in a luxe, refillable glass decanter that looks great on a bathroom shelf. A silicone bottom helps keep it secure. Refills are sold as concentrates that are mixed with water.
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