Be careful what you put in your mouth

Is toothpaste, or can it be, good for you and good for the environment? And conversely, can it be bad? This is something I had never considered before, but when you think about it we all brush our teeth (hopefully) twice a day. That is billions upon billions of people doing this one simple activity, day in and day out. What are the environmental implications of this?

Given the scale of teeth brushing it is not surprising that the answers to the above questions, in the same order, are “if not good, at least neutral” and “yes, it can be pretty bad”.

Let’s start with how your dental care can be bad for you and the environment:

Ingredients

Toothpaste often contains many chemicals to keep your pearly’s white and clean. Some of these can be quite bad for you. For example,  triclosan is included in many brands, and also happens to be a registered pesticide. It disrupts the body’s hormone system, irritates the skin and eyes, and may contribute to bacterial resistance to antimicrobial agents.

Parabens are also present and not ideal, as they are also known to disrupt hormones and can lead to reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. Many parabens are banned, and the ones that are commonly used (namely methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben) can only be present in restricted quantities.

Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) are foaming agents found in toohtpastes, shampoos and soaps, and which could have potential health risks.

Fluoride is a chemical which helps prevent tooth decay. While it is very effective, it can be toxic if ingested, which is why you need to always spit your toothpaste out afterwards. For this reason, it’s quantities are very low and should not be harmful. Some companies do not believe fluoride in toothpaste poses any health risks, while some do – the evidence isn’t really enough for either stance.

There are also often sweeteners in toothpaste, to make them taste better, despite the fact that we know sugars are not good for our teeth.

What is also quite frustrating is that many toothpastes do not advertise their ingredients, so often you don’t even know what you’re putting in your mouth.

The environment

You may be thinking “well I spit out my toothpaste, so why should I worry about these ingredients?”, and in a way you are right (although I personally prefer not to use toxic and potentially harmful chemicals if there are better alternatives – more on this later). But have you given much thought to what happens to the stuff you spit out? That toothpaste concoction still exists, and gradually makes it’s way to our water sources where the quantities build up over time – harming animals and plant life, and which can also then harm us, eventually.

Triclosan is very toxic to aquatic organisms and can damage their environments.

Palm oil is also found in many toothpastes. The palm oil industry is very destructive of natural habitats, and although some palm oil is farmed responsibly, most of it is not. Read more on the palm oil industry here.

Here’s an interesting article on the toxicity of fluoride – even if it is discussing the cons of fluoride to water directly, I think the same probably holds when adding it indirectly to our water systems: 10 important fluoride facts

And lastly, while this seems like a small thing, but because everyone brushes their teeth it adds up quickly to be a big thing: have you ever thought about your toothbrush packaging? Does the tube really need to boxed? This is just more waste which might not be recycled. And is the tube recyclable? What about your toothbrush and dental floss, can they be recycled?

Animal testing

Yes, some toothpastes are tested on animals, so if this is a concern for you, you will need to look out for the brands that are registered as cruelty free, like Lush.

So what alternatives are there?

Nature Fresh toothpasteThere are a number of toothpastes on the market which endeavor to only use non-harmful ingredients which can still clean your teeth, such as aloe, xylitol and baking soda. On the left is a toothpaste I recently brought from Fresh Earth in Greenside, Joburg (they also have an online shop), which I am trying out. It doesn’t have the same intense minty freshness as most commercial toothpastes, and it also doesn’t foam, both of which take a little getting used to. However, when I used ‘regular’ toothpaste after using this for a while, I found the foaming and flavour both too much, so I guess it is something you can adapt to quite quickly.

From what I can tell the ingredients all look to be utterly safe for people – and even pets! It also doesn’t come in a box, just the tube, so there’s less wasteful packaging. Plus it has not been tested on animals and is made in South Africa. So far I’m enjoying it, though I guess the test of how well it cleans my teeth will only be obvious over a period of time (as for all toothpastes!).

There are a lot of other brands on the market, and places to buy them. Try the online organic shop, Faithful to Nature. I have also seen some aloe toothpastes in Dischem, so it is worth checking out.

Environmental ToothbrushAnother option is to make your own toothpaste. This way you will know exactly what goes into it. While I have never tried this, I love Wellness Mama’s website and her other recipes, so I’d recommend you start with her homemade toothpaste recipe.

While buying my new toothpaste, I also grabbed one of these Environmental Toothbrushes, which is 100% biodegradable. It’s made from bamboo, which is fast-growing and does not consume a lot of water, making it a popular sustainable material. They are also BPA free, Fair Trade and vegan friendly. Nice!

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