Between the bamboo toothbrushes and plastic-free toothpaste tabs, it all has you wondering if you should make some eco-friendly oral care swaps. After all, with a billion plastic toothbrushes heading to the landfill each year, who wouldn’t want a dental hygiene routine that’s better for the planet? But then again, will these more “sustainable” dental products actually sustain your pearly whites?
To get to the bottom of things, we spoke with two dentists who gave us the low-down on eco-friendly oral care products. Continue reading below to learn which dentist-approved products are good for your teeth and the planet.
How to Choose Eco-Friendly Oral Care Products, According to Dentists
Since you were young, you’ve probably been getting handed a plastic toothbrush as your “prize” for attending your routine dental cleanings. These toothbrushes typically come in blister packs that aren’t recyclable, nor is the toothbrush itself due to its size and shape. For this reason, many sustainability enthusiasts have converted to bamboo toothbrushes, which aren’t made from plastic and are easily compostable.
The good news is, when it comes to effectiveness, this swap is perfectly fine. “Bamboo toothbrushes are equally effective when compared to the typical plastic toothbrushes,” says Joseph Field, DDS, a dental implant specialist at Mid-Peninsula Implant Center in Los Altos, California.
What’s more important is paying attention to the bristles. “Make sure the bristles are soft—that’s important,” says Michaela Tozzi, DMD, a specialist in general and cosmetic dentistry in Henderson, Nevada. “Bristles on a manual toothbrush that are too stiff can cause enamel damage as well as trauma and recession to the gums.”
Technique is also key. Dr. Tozzi advises that you should brush in small circles around the gum line and in between the teeth for the most effective clean.
With its myriad of hard-to-pronounce ingredients and plastic packaging, toothpaste is the next product to swap in your eco-friendly oral care routine. With that said, you want to make sure you’re swapping to something that’s equally effective.
According to Dr. Field, that’s quite a feasible endeavor. “For years, the natural toothpastes were sorely lacking and were not very effective with preventing cavities. They’ve come a long way and are much more effective,” he says. “With that being said, they’re not for everyone. For patients who have a high decay risk, they really should be using a toothpaste that has fluoride.”
Should I use a toothpaste with fluoride in it?
Fluoride, huh? Let’s talk about that. There’s quite a bit of controversy over this ingredient and whether or not it’s safe—or even necessary—for preventing cavities.
According to Dr. Tozzi, safety isn’t a concern with fluoride as long as it’s not ingested in high doses. “Because you should be rinsing and spitting after brushing, there’s minimal to no risk,” she says. “If you’re drinking [fluoride] in water on a daily basis, this is where the concern comes in regarding how it affects our organs.”
While she does typically recommend looking for fluoride in toothpaste in order to prevent cavities, she says it isn’t necessarily a must-have. “You can maintain your dental health without [fluoride], but top-notch oral hygiene is key—brushing, flossing, neutral saliva pH, etc.,” Dr. Tozzi says.
Dr. Field echos a similar sentiment, saying the need for fluoride depends on the patient. “Patients with a low risk of decay—or with minimal crowns and fillings—don’t typically need it,” he says. “Those in the other category absolutely should be using it. Just like most things, it really comes down to how much and how it’s used.”
Which ingredients should I look for in toothpaste?
Enough about fluoride. Now, let’s chat about some lesser-known ingredients, like xylitol. This ingredient comes highly recommended by Dr. Tozzi, which is great news since it’s present in popular eco-friendly toothpaste brands like David’s and Bite (our Scouts were able to try out the latter—see what they thought!). “Xylitol is great due to its antibacterial properties,” says Dr. Tozzi. However, she warns that this ingredient can be deadly to pets, so make sure you store it up and away from any four-legged friends.
Dr. Field, on the other hand, gives a shoutout to calcium phosphate. “Calcium phosphate is a very helpful ion that can be found in the most effective toothpastes,” he says. “It aids in remineralization of enamel.” This enamel-restoring ion also goes by the name hydroxyapatite and can also be found in Bite.
Which ingredients should I avoid in toothpaste?
So, now we know what to look for. But what ingredients should be dealbreakers? Dr. Field recommends staying away from triclosan, which historically has been added to toothpastes due to its ability to prevent gingivitis. However, studies have found it could also be linked to hormone disruption and cause harm to the immune system.
Not liking the sound of that, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared in 2017 that triclosan is not generally recognized as safe and effective for use in certain over-the-counter health care antiseptic products. Luckily, you’ll no longer find triclosan in most toothpastes. It’s even absent from widely-known store-bought brands, like Crest and Colgate.
One questionable ingredient that’s more likely to make an appearance: charcoal. Dr. Tozzi recommends treading lightly around this one. “[Charcoal] can be too abrasive and cause irreversible enamel damage,” she says. “Over time, less enamel results in the under layer, called dentin, to become more prominent. This is an issue because it causes sensitivity and cause the teeth to actually look more yellow.”
Not quite as dramatic of a dealbreaker as triclosan, but something to be aware of. Especially since charcoal does seem to be having a moment in the natural toothpaste community.
Next up in eco-friendly oral care is floss. The main environmental impact of floss is its packaging. It also takes years to biodegrade. Luckily, sustainable floss is just as effective. “The main purpose of floss is to get in the crevices between the teeth to remove plaque,” Dr. Field says. “As long as the floss can accomplish that, a low-waste option—or one that’s more biodegradable—would be a great way to go.”
Dr. Tozzi says she actually uses a sustainable floss herself. “I’m currently using [The Humble Co.] floss and loving it,” she says. “It’s eco-friendly, vegan, and cruelty-free.”
Some swear by mouthwash, others only use it to quickly freshen their breath before a date. So what’s the deal: Do we need it? And what kinds are most effective?
“I’m not a big fan of mouthwash,” says Dr. Tozzi. “It can’t hurt using it, but effective brushing and flossing are what’s most important for excellent oral health. If you like getting that final fresh feeling, then use it. I just want to stress that it doesn’t replace proper oral hygiene.”
If you do indeed find yourself in search of that “final fresh feeling,” then Dr. Tozzi has a couple tips. First, she recommends avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes. “They dehydrate the oral cavity, which can cause irritation and temporary low saliva flow,” she says. Instead, she recommends looking for coconut oil and xylitol in your mouth rinse due to their antibacterial benefits.
Dr. Field agrees, saying “the goal of a mouthwash is to aid in cleaning the teeth. For my patients, I typically recommend rinsing with a mouth rinse first—and then brushing—because typically the active ingredients in toothpaste are more effective than what’s found in a mouth rinse.”
Finally, the cherry on top of an excellent dental hygiene regimen: a bright white smile. Both Dr. Tozzi and Dr. Field recommend seeking a professional for whitening treatments as opposed to experimenting with DIY methods.
“My recommendation is to meet with your dentist to determine what’s the reason for your tooth discoloration, and then discuss the most appropriate option,” says Dr. Field. “This is an important step because, if done incorrectly, there can be negative consequences to some of the whitening products on the market.”
Dr. Tozzi agrees, saying professional whitening treatments are recommended. “It’s done in a controlled environment where the gum tissue is protected from the strong levels of hydrogen peroxide, preventing chemical burns,” she says. “It can be removed if the patient is experiencing sensitivity.”
Dr. Tozzi does add that the popular home whitening method of brushing with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda is fine. She simply recommends that it not be part of your daily routine. “Baking soda can be abrasive if used on a consistent basis, causing enamel damage,” she says. “Hydrogen peroxide is fine—just be sure to not overdo it and cause a chemical burn on your gums.”
So there we have it: Your guide to an eco-friendly oral care routine that even Mother Earth can smile about. We do want to to note, though, that you should always speak with your dentist before making any changes to your oral care regimen. They’re the ones who know best, after all.
“There’s a lot of hype with the low-waste and natural products on the market. Some of them are good, some are not. And none of them are a one-size-fits-all,” says Dr. Field. “Have an open conversation with your dental professional to help find the right solution for you.”