Intro: The Problem with Plastic Toothbrushes
Throughout history, we humans have tried all manner of materials to manage the funk that lives inside our mouths—from cloth wipes, salt, chalk, sticks, and crushed shells, to animal bones, boar’s hair, bird feathers, vinegar, and even nitric acid. Our earliest prototype, from 15th century China, was in fact technically a biodegradable toothbrush.
It just happened to wreak havoc on the mouth. These brushes were often made with boar’s hair or other sharp animal bristles that held up to warm water, but were uncomfortable to say the least.
Over time, with the help of many a chemical company, the evolution of this modern tool finally arrived at the ubiquitous, softer, plastic version we see today.
But the problem is they’re NOT recyclable through ordinary household recycling. If you’re like me, you want to believe otherwise. Before I knew better, I used to throw them in there anyway and hope for the best. I thought if they weren’t then the brushes would just be pulled out.
Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, and “wishcycling” as I did can actually be pretty bad. Throwing stuff in your recycle bin when it’s not supposed to be there actually contaminates the rest, and the whole lot of it can be rejected by overseas or local recycling plants. Then it’s just dumped in a landfill… or who knows where.
Also, toothbrushes will take at least 400 YEARS to biodegrade, if they do at all. Thus, every plastic toothbrush ever thrown into a landfill–since the 1940s–still exists today!
So, even if you put it in the RECYCLING bin it can STILL end up in the ocean.
How exactly? Check out this video by Brush with Bamboo, to learn more:
Thus, if you follow the ADA’s guidelines for replacing your brush every three to four months, from ages five to 95, that means a family of four will generate over ONE THOUSAND toothbrushes in their lifetime that could end up in the ocean.
But don’t be sad! As promised, VGR is here to address this problem by considering our two favorite questions:
Well, history is indeed coming full circle with plastic-free options whose origins date as far back as 3500 BC, as you’ll discover below!
Here are 4 tips for plastic-free brushing in modern ways, inspired by practices from the olden days:
(To learn more about what the specific categories mean, click here)
SURPRISE! Plastic-free, plant-based modern bamboo brushes have existed for a while now, and word is spreading from the zero-waste community outward. Unlike the brushes of 500 years ago, these have appropriately safe and soft bristles for your mouth. Brush with Bamboo is the world’s first and oldest plant-based toothbrush. The brush is made of:
— U.S. sourced, SOFT bio-based bristles;
— A sustainably sourced and chemical-free, compstable bamboo handle; and
— 100% compostable, plant-based packaging–even the part that looks like plastic wrap. See below for a photo:
The brushes are also BPA-Free, Vegan, GMO-Free, Gluten-Free, and nontoxic. However, it’s important to note that while the handle is fully compostable, the bristles are still part synthetic: 62% plant-based and 38% nylon (which can be recycled in some cities).
Prior to throwing these in the garden or compost, take a pliers to remove the bristles, or snap off the top portion. This may be a bummer, but it’s still better than the 100% plastic brush (only .01 oz of plastic instead.) Otherwise, the only 100% compostable bristles are still made of animal hair and therefore not vegan.
Got a lot of different mouths in your house that might object to a transition to the bamboo brush? If you decide to keep your plastic toothbrushes SEND THEM IN FOR SPECIAL RECYCLING.
Yes, if you still use plastic toothbrushes, there IS A WAY to recycle them FOR FREE…Just not through your curbside pickup. Terracycle is a super amazing recycling company that’s found a variety of ways to recycle difficult materials, ranging from earbuds to razors and even cigarette butts.
One of their FREEEEEEE programs is sponsored by Colgate and allows you to MAIL IN your used plastic toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, and floss containers. They can be ANY BRAND! Sign up HERE to print a FREE shipping label, collect your family’s old mouth garbage and send it in.
Wanna be more hard core? Go beyond the bamboo toothbrush, dispense with annoying toothpaste, and pay homage to the O.G. of the dental hygiene world by taking up the chew stick!
Licorice root chew sticks, also referred to as miswak or siwak, date back to Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and are still commonly used today. They’re available with different flavors such as cherry or vanilla.
However, you’ll want to consider your packaging preference–if you order online they may come in a plastic bag which you’ll have to recycle somewhere. Alternatively, they’re also available package-free in the bulk section at local co-op grocery stores.
If chewing on a stick isn’t convincing, try plastic-free, biodegradable chewing gum instead. Yep, you guessed it! Most regular chewing gum ALSO contains plastic as a base–IN THE GUM ITSELF. Gross.
But Simply Gum is one example of plastic-free, non-GMO certified, vegan, kosher, nut free, and soy free option for fresh breath. It’s also aspartame free and xylitol free. The packaging is 100% biodegradable, even the “post-chew papers” included to responsibly dispose of your used gum.
Their ingredients are also sustainably sourced, and made in the U.S. They come in a variety of flavors including ginger, mint, licorice, coffee, cinnamon, fennel, and limited edition grapefruit or lemongrass and turmeric. You can also buy them at Whole Foods and avoid the shipping materials.
If you’re considering making plastic-free living a real lifestyle change, my challenge to you is: talk to your dentist (whoa!) about their position on plastic-free dental tools. Ask if they’ve considered recommending non-plastic alternatives to patients. My dentist was curious about the floss I found as well as possible water picks– more info on this soon!
As you go through your day, notice the little ways that plastic can creep up on you. Something like gum or mints, for example, are so small and part of such an old routine that I often don’t remember to think about the plastic until it’s too late.
Help spread the word about the truth in recycling, how it’s not the catch-all miracle we want it to be, and why these little bits of plastic add up to a whole lot of mess! Start a friendly, hopeful conversation with someone today about the changes you can make!
So all that being said, how did we get to this point? How did humans clean their teeth before plastic? If you’re curious, read on friends!
Pre-Plasticene Practices: What Humans Did Before Plastic Toothbrushes
The Twig, Chew Stick, Miswak, and Natural Toothpick
Early civilizations, dating as far back to 3500 BC Babylonia, as well as Chinese, Etruscan, Egyptian, and other cultures of the Middle East, all present archaeological evidence of early toothpicks or fiber chew sticks, sometimes called Miswak or Siwak, used for rubbing or scraping the teeth.7
They used twigs with special flavors to freshen the breath, from trees and shrubs such as licorice, lucern, mallow root, myrtle, dogwood, or peach.2 A person chewed the end of the stick until it frayed and then used it as a brush.
Likewise, humans made simple toothpicks from natural sources such as bird feathers, thorns, or porcupine quills.
Ornate metal toothpicks made with gold and gems were also used by elite Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and later Europeans.
Pliny the Elder (early Roman historian) even advised: “Picking the teeth with the quill of the vulture turns the breath sour while a porcupine’s quill makes the teeth firm.” 8
“Hey Siri, remove vulture quill from the shopping list!”
Crushed Up Stuff and Abrasives
Following animal bones and twigs, China, India, Greece, and Rome offer early examples of abrasive cleansers. These later evolved into tooth powders and early toothpaste prototypes.
Hippocrates, Greek ‘Father of Medicine,’ concocted a lovely fun-dip recipe that included burnt hare’s head and mouse parts.2
Other flavors of the time used: powdered charcoal or bark, crushed oyster shells, burned eggshells, the ashes of ox hooves,5 or pumice stone mixed with wine vinegar or tartaric acid.7
The Tooth Powder: Precursor to Toothpaste
Tooth powders rose in popularity during the late 19th century in America, when druggists often prepared or sold “dentrifices” with ingredients such as baking soda, chalk, charcoal, carbolic acid, camphor, and oils like cinnamon, peppermint, or rose.9
Sozodont, Bleachodont, and Tartaroff were among some of the most popular –and dangerous — products. Bleachodent contained hydrochloric acid and Tartaroff dissolved 3% (!!!) of a person’s tooth enamel during each use.9
Companies heavily marketed these products’ beautifying effects as far back as the 1870s. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that the ADA began to warn the public of the danger of these products.9
By 1949, toothpaste took over with 75% of the market share. Dentrifices and powders slowly faded to the background.
These new toothpastes focused on fighting bacteria with a new host of ingredients including ammonia, chlorophyll, and penicillin. (None of these claims were substantiated by the ADA).9
The industry also introduced fluoride in the 1940s, but the ADA didn’t approve of it as an additive until 1955 with Crest.9
Tooth Scraping, Cavity Filling, and Boar Bristles
Backing up a bit, there were a few more developments with the toothbrush. Nothing much happened for the brush during the Dark and Middle Ages, but dentistry slowly began to build credibility as a profession.
Moving into the 15th century, English barber-surgeons performed much of the cleaning and scraping–sometimes with nitric acid! This looked great…until it ate away the enamel and caused the teeth to die.2
Physicians also begin to note the connection between food and dental decay.
But the award for the first viable toothbrush prototype, as we know it today, goes to 15th century China!
This early prototype consisted of boar’s neck bristles embedded in a bone or bamboo handle 1 similar to the one shown here.
From Early Biodegradable Toothbrush to Nylon
From this point forward, the toothbrush is in play!
Although people mostly agreed on the importance of oral hygiene by this point, there was still debate over the best methods. As you can see, the natural brush was more like Cinderella’s chimney broom than what we use today.
Thus, there were many rapid developments in toothbrush comfort from the 18th century onward that bring us to our current plastic version. DuPont’s invention of Nylon in 1938 was arguably the biggest and most impactful development of all.
Read on and check out my tidy timeline below to learn more about toothbrush industrialization!
French surgeon Pierre Fauchard argues for swabbing with sponges dipped in aqua vitae (fancy!) over the coarse bristles he felt were too rough and destructive
William Addis of England is first to patent the toothbrush, making his handle from whittled animal bone, securing animal bristles with wire and glue.
Toothbrushes are manufactured in France, Germany, and Japan. Ordinary people still use cloth and sponges. Brushes remain a luxury until the mid 19th century.
In America, H.N. Wadsworth applies for the first American toothbrush patent.
Toothbrush factories pop up on the East Coast. By 1885 they begin producing the first brush to be individually packaged for sterility-the Prophylactic Brush.
Various experiments making handles of wood, ivory, rubber, vulcanite, or celluloid.
Industrialization soars in the West and tooth decay increases dramatically as a result of growing availability of refined sugar and flour. Surveys show between 90 to 95% of all children had decaying teeth.
First dental hygienists distribute free toothbrushes in schools as public health campaign–still mostly made of various animal hairs and bone or wood.
In England, toothbrushes are provided to all servicemen during WWI. A shortage of bone and craftsmen to make handles during the war leads to increased use of celluloid (invented in 1869 as a substitute for ivory and tortoise-shell)
Some companies experiment with Bakelite handles. Celluloid handles are easily machine made, water resistant, and colorful. But they’re still flammable and distort in hot water.
DuPont Company invents nylon, introducing the Exton nylon bristle brush, considered the first good substitute for boar bristles. Nylon was cheaper to produce and more resistant to bacterial growth.
WWII causes a cutoff in supply of hog bristles from China, further encouraging reliance on nylon bristles made in the U.S. Handles also now made of nylon and polystyrene. Americans are inspired by the hygiene of soldiers in Europe and bring toothbrush habits back home.
Fifty percent of American brushes now made with nylon bristles, showing greater durability in water, but still abrasive to gums.
Plastic and nylon technologies progress, making softer, rounder bristles. Jingles, ads, and gimmicks are used to sell brushes, including various colors, whistles, and shapes added to children’s brushes. Advancements in synthetic detergents replace regular soap in toothpaste with emulsifying agents such as sodium lauryl sulphate.
Retired Navy periodontist Dr. Robert W. Hudson, of San Jose, CA, makes softer brush in his basement, using very thin flexible bristle in compact tufts. He calls his brush the ‘Oral-B 60′
DuPont invents Lucite and the clear plastic handle is available.
Oral B is now producing 5 million toothbrushes with nationwide and international distribution.
DuPont wants to increase sales of its nylon and plastic products so it collaborates with Applied Ergonomics Corporation to prototype a new more practical, competitive brush. Johnson & Johnson acquire the rights to this new brush, the ‘Reach Toothbrush,’ and produce the first ever million-dollar television ad campaign for a toothbrush.
Enter Colgate-Palmolive and the John O. Butler Company with the G.U.M. brush, notable for its rubber stimulator at the base of the handle. Oral B introduces the ‘Indicator’ strip; Proctor & Gamble make their first brush, Crest Complete. DuPont continues to be a leading manufacturer.
Toothbrush sales reach $520 million dollars and continue to grow as the American Dental Association recommends toothbrushes be replaced every three to four months.
… and that pretty much brings us up to our current, plastic-based common toothbrush, comfortable-but-not-recyclable.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this post! Comment below with stories of your success–> I want to hear about your own toothbrush trials!
1. Chicago Dental Society. (2010, May/June). Dental dateline: It may be time to replace your toothbrush. CDS Review. p. 21.
2. Smith, C. (2000). Toothbrush technology: Even the pharaohs brushed their teeth. Journal of Dental Technology, 17(4). pp. 26-27.
3. Curtis, E.K. (1996). Brush with destiny: a social history of the toothbrush. Contact Point, 76(2). pp. 9-11.
4. Fee, E., & Brown, T. M. (2004). Images of Health: Popularizing the Toothbrush. American Journal of Public Health, 94(5). p. 721.
5. Strauss, V. (2009, April 13). Ever Wondered How People Cleaned Their Teeth Before They Had Toothbrushes? The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/12/AR2009041202655.html?noredirect=on.
6. Kennedy, P. (2013, February 15). Who Made That Toothbrush? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/magazine/who-made-that-toothbrush.html.
7. Golding, S. (1982). The development of the toothbrush: A short history of tooth cleansing Part 1. Dental Health 21(4). pp. 25-27.
8. Hyson, J.S. (2003). History of the Toothbrush. Journal of the History of Dentistry, 51(2). pp. 73-80.
9. Smithsonian, National Museum of American History. (n.d.). Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections. Retrieved from https://www.si.edu/spotlight/health-hygiene-and-beauty/oral-care
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Products I suggest are based solely on my own personal thoughts, and I am not a health or environmental professional. As always please seek the relevant and appropriate professional/medical advice for your lifestyle as needed.