When I started VGR, my first post was about toothbrushes. I thought, let’s begin this project with the item most used at the start of everyone’s day. This research led me to discover how nylon came to replace many natural materials during and after WWII–including previously biodegradable dental floss!
Nowadays, we know this mainstream nylon floss is bad because:
1.) The thread is made of plastic that doesn’t biodegrade and can be ingested by, choke, or tangle up wildlife, and
2.) The container is made of plastic that can’t be recycled unless you break off the metal & other parts…if your local facility takes #5 plastic at all.
But, history is coming full circle in a good way! The olden-days packaging methods for floss have been readopted for today’s plastic-free, modern ways! Below are suggestions for this new biodegradable dental floss as well as a brief history on the topic. (Click here to skip ahead to the history & fun old photos)!
Suggestions for Plastic-Free Flossing
For a reminder of what the different categories mean, see here.
Stop buying plastic/nylon floss containers and switch to a refillable one when you need more. There are several options on Amazon: all of them come in glass containers with a metal top, and are coated with a vegan, plant-based Candelilla wax. I’ve put together the chart below to help you compare.
——> Note: If you are a floss pick user, there are also vegan organic floss picks whose pick and packaging will biodegrade in six months. However, this still generates more waste than floss so use sparingly.
Product info, links, and pictures below!
|Brand Name||Recyclable, Plastic-free Outer Box.||Silk |
|Vegan Thread||Refill Packaging|
|Dental Lace||Yes. Box made of 100% post-consumer paperboard. Certified FSC & PCF free.||100% silk, biodegradable, compostable.||Current vegan thread is bamboo-infused polyester (not compostable) but will be phased out for new vegan plant-based (corn) that IS compostable.||Certified compostable bag made of corn.|
|Lucky Teeth||Yes. Plastic-free packaging.||100% Organic Peace silk, biodegradable.||Organic vegan bamboo, biodegradable.||Recyclable cardboard box|
|Treebird||Yes. Stickers and box are compostable. Box made of Kraft paper.||100% silk, biodegradable, compostable.||Organic vegan bamboo, no refill option. Biodegradable.||Compostable box with compostable stickers. Wax paper unclear if compostable.|
Additional perks: Dental Lace has free shipping in the U.S., ships to Australia and Europe, and comes in a variety of colors. Lucky Teeth uses Organic Peace silk– the process may have improved treatment of silk worms, and is currently available in U.S. and Australia. Treebird has free shipping on U.S. orders over $35.
Download a FREE shipping label to send all of your plastic floss containers into Terracyle to be recycled for FREE. Gather containers from family members, friends, and coworkers to consolidate carbon emissions from shipping. Colgate’s program accepts any brands, and Tom’s of Maine has one for their products.
Individual Inspiration: Don’t like supporting Amazon’s behemoth world domination? Want to make sure your money goes direct to the small business?
1.) Buy your first refillable container direct from these companies’ websites: Dental Lace, Treebird, or Lucky Teeth. Or, see if your local co-op carries them on your next shopping trip. If you’re not in the U.S. your options may be more limited- Dental Lace ships the most widely to over 40 countries.
2.) Read up on each of their pages to get the full scoop on their processes and confirm which company best aligns with your values. Investigate silk worm treatment and production–it’s not great.
3.) Choose between silk and vegan; the vegan thread is a bit thicker in my experience (though the new Dental Lace one is corn-based so I still need to try it and am hoping it’s thinner). If your gums don’t mind the thickness, my first choice is vegan over silk due to the questionable treatment of silk worms.
In order of preference then:
1.) Dental Lace new vegan plant-based (corn) biodegradable & compostable
2.) Lucky Teeth organic vegan biodegradable
3.) Treebird organic vegan biodegradable
4.) Dental Lace vegan biodegradable
5.) Lucky Teeth organic peace silk biodegradable
6.) Dental Lace silk biodegradable & compostable
7.) Treebird silk biodegradable & compostable
If you can’t tolerate the thicker vegan thread and you don’t want to do the silk, you could also try a water pick (Amazon link included here just to give you an idea of the different types). The machine is plastic but it’s not single use, doesn’t harm silk worms, and the cordless ones are much smaller and easy to travel with. Check with your periodontist or dentist if you have concerns.
The Floss Backstory
So now aren’t you curious about what happened from 1919 to 2019, and how plastic got involved in the floss industry?
Around 1815, a New Orleans dentist named Levi Spear Parmly began instructing his patients to clean between their teeth with thin silk threads.
He advised that the thread should be used “to dislodge that irritating matter which no brush can remove and which is the real source of distress.”
His idea eventually caught on and became a commonplace recommendation among dentists. Dental floss first became commercially available when Johnson & Johnson patented the product in 1882.
Up to that point, silk had been quite expensive for the average consumer. But by 1898, the Johnson brothers realized that they could reuse the surplus silk they had leftover from making their sterile sutures. They repurposed the silk into dental floss and packaged it in spools for sale.
The early spools were flat metal containers and were later changed to glass and metal. The metal cutting mechanism used today is the exact same one they used back then. However, during and after WWII, with a limited supply of silk, and the invention of nylon, companies eventually switched to the cheaper plastic material– and the rest is history!
Hopefully, Johnson & Johnson will take a cue from these other modern zero-waste flossers and ditch their plastic now, too! In fact, I wonder if their New Brunswick factories or archival storage facilities would still have the old machinery that was used to make those glass vials long ago???