Brushing and flossing are essential to good health, but the impact of dental products on the environment is nothing to smile about. National Geographic estimates that we’re tossing 23 billion toothbrushes into the trash each year, which are washing up on coastalines along with other plastic waste, harming marine life and birds. Plastic-free alternatives are gaining popularity, but can products that are good for the planet also be good for your teeth? London, Ont., dentist Riham Qandil says it largely depends on individual oral health, so ask your dentist which could work for you. We put six options to the test and asked her to weigh in on which are worth your green.
These toothbrushes have sustainably sourced, biodegradable handles that can be composted after use. Made from recyclable nylon, the bristles can be plucked out with pliers and recycled (check your local recycling guidelines first).
User experience: It’s a simple design, and the bamboo handle is easy and comfortable to use. But the bristles were harder than on most “soft” drugstore toothbrushes. Removing the nylon bristles was easy (and oddly satisfying).
Expert opinion: “Any toothbrush pretty much works about the same if you use it properly,” says Dr. Qandil. From an oral health perspective, what matters is brushing technique, an appropriate toothbrush size and caring for existing issues like receding gums. $10 for two, The Future is Bamboo.
Dirty Toothy Tabs
These tiny fluoride-free tabs, flavoured with essential oils, use sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) and kaolin clay powder to polish teeth clean. The container is made from recycled, recyclable plastic.
User experience: I bit down on the tab as directed, which felt like crunching a tiny bath bomb. After a couple bites, it did turn into a foaming paste, though it wasn’t completely smooth. The tabs did leave my mouth feeling clean, but I had to actively pick out the small pieces stuck in my lips and teeth. I didn’t look forward to using them.
Expert opinion: Dr. Qandil doesn’t love the idea of replacing toothpaste with tabs–she agrees that they’re “very chunky when you break them in your mouth.” This could cause tooth fractures, especially in older people, and the eventual paste isn’t the right consistency for a “proper toothbrushing.” She also really, really, really wants everyone to use products with fluoride. $11, Lush.
Activated charcoal toothpaste
This zero-waste vegan toothpaste is one of seven made with food-grade ingredients in Nelson, B.C. The promise is that activated charcoal will remove plaque, bacteria and tannins that cause stains. Instead of squeezing a tube, users are instructed to dip their toothbrush directly into a glass jar, which can be refilled at participating retailers.
User experience: Nelson Naturals was not kidding when they warned that their charcoal toothpaste is “extremely messy” (using an electric toothbrush was a big mistake). I looked like I was eating paint, but my mouth felt minty fresh and clean.
Expert opinion: Rather than dip toothbrushes directly into the jar, Dr. Qandil advises using a small utensil that can be cleaned between uses to avoid contamination. “A charcoal toothpaste would never be on my recommendation list,” she says, warning that charcoal can be abrasive, possibly leading to gum recession and sensitivity over time. $13.49, Nelson Naturals.
Activated charcoal mouthwash
Newly available in Canada, this U.S. brand boasts oral care products made with natural flavours from responsibly-sourced ingredients. This mouthwash is a bestseller, and contains activated charcoal from bamboo, coconut oil, tee tree oil, xylitol and no alcohol or fluoride.
User experience: Without alcohol, the mouthwash didn’t sting while I swished it around in my mouth. The black liquid is jarring at first, and the taste takes some getting used to, but overall, it left my mouth feeling clean and refreshed.
Expert opinion: Dr. Qandil does prefer mouthwashes that don’t contain alcohol, but strongly recommends fluoride in all dental products. Calling activated charcoal a “trend” based on lore about ancient Egyptians, she says it’s less abrasive in mouthwash than toothpaste, but she still wouldn’t recommend this for anyone with sensitive teeth or gums. $7, Hello.
Copper tongue scraper
Tongue scrapers have been used for centuries–notably in India–and Western dentists have started giving out plastic ones. Made from antibacterial copper, this flexible scraper promises to help reduce bad breath without tarnishing over time.
User experience: Place the curve of the scraper at the back of your tongue, then gently pull it forward. The copper scraper was much more comfortable to use than plastic and always left my tongue visibly cleaner.
Expert opinion: Dr. Qandil is a fan, noting that tongue scrapers clear away bacteria, helping to reduce bad breath and staining, especially for smokers and red wine or coffee drinkers. “Scraping the tongue also promotes saliva, which helps cleanse the mouth naturally, promotes a better tasting for food and enhances digestion,” she says. $10, BamBrush.
Biodegradable silk floss
Made with three ingredients—silk, beeswax and mint—this floss is sold as fully compostable. It comes in plant-based packaging and easily folds into a reusable dispenser.
User experience: I love this floss. It is strong enough to get through my entire grill using a single thread, glides comfortably between my teeth and leaves my breath feeling minty fresh.
Expert opinion: “As long as you’re flossing, that’s the greatest thing you can do,” says Dr. Qandil. The main issue to watch out for is strength, since floss that frays or breaks can get stuck between teeth and cause gum or tooth damage. $7, WooBamboo from Well.ca.