When we brush and floss our teeth, we think about preventing cavities or gum disease, not the impact we’ll have on the environment. The reality, though, is that many dental products sold at major retailers are harmful to the environment in ways that just don’t cross our minds when we’re doing our routine morning and bedtime routines.
How floss hurts our planet
We often think of plastic as being recyclable, but the plastic containers used for traditional dental floss often aren’t made with recyclable materials. When these containers are thrown in the trash, they get transported to landfills, and since plastic is not biodegradable, the containers can linger in these landfills for centuries—up to 500 years. During this time, the plastic’s chemicals can leak into nearby groundwater, contaminating it and rendering it unusable as drinking water.
The effects of the floss containers are problematic enough, but the floss itself is arguably even worse. Traditional floss tends to be made with nylon, which is just as dangerous as plastic when dumped into a landfill since it is also non-biodegradable.
Unlike the plastic containers, though, floss often gets blown from garbage trucks because of its small size and weight, and much of it gets carried into rivers or the ocean. Marine life can accidentally swallow the floss, and since many flosses contain harmful chemicals such as perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, they can create major health issues for those animals. And that’s if the floss doesn’t get stuck in the animals’ throats and suffocate them outright.
Fortunately, there exist a few alternatives to traditional floss that can help mitigate these environmental effects. One alternative commonly suggested by experts is silk floss, which is constructed using silkworms’ silk. What makes silk floss more eco-friendly is that, unlike nylon, silk is completely biodegradable, so the risk of groundwater contamination is drastically reduced.
Additionally, several silk flosses contain Candelilla wax, a plant-based wax that is significantly less harmful than the chemicals used in many nylon flosses. Rather than coming in disposable containers, silk floss usually comes in reusable ones made of glass, which can be refilled with new spindles of floss available in stores such as online retailer Public Goods. Unfortunately, silk floss tends to be sold at higher prices than nylon floss, so this alternative will work mainly for individuals with extra cash to spare or those who are truly environmentally conscious.
Those looking for an alternative to nylon floss can always opt not to use floss at all. Water flossers are now widely available, and while the water flossers themselves are made of plastic, they can be reused again and again. This alone dramatically cuts potential plastic and nylon disposal, although certain dentists may recommend water floss as a complement to silk floss or other floss alternatives rather than a replacement.
What about toothpaste?
Considering how regularly we brush our teeth, it’s understandable that many simply never think about the ways toothpaste can impact the environment. But many kinds of toothpaste commonly sold at retailers can be just as eco-unfriendly as traditional floss, albeit in different ways. Much like floss, toothpaste usually comes in non-recyclable plastic packages that pollute our groundwater when tossed into a landfill.
Where toothpaste differs from floss is in its chemical composition. The exact chemicals included in the toothpaste depend on the brand, but generally, environmentally conscious consumers should watch out for any toothpaste that contains artificial colorants or sweeteners. The Brilliant Blue FCF and Helidone Pink colorants are particularly dangerous, as they can pass through our sewage system and get dumped directly into our waterways. Both colorants are toxic substances for marine life, and while small amounts of them are relatively harmless, the same cannot be said when they are in abundance.
Even more deadly than the colorants is sodium pyrophosphate, a substance intended to reduce the amount of tartar that can form on teeth. When it makes its way through sewage systems, the phosphor contained within it causes algae to accumulate and eventually release carbon dioxide into our waterways. This build-up of carbon dioxide can end up creating what are known as dead zones, areas in the water that contain less oxygen. The marine animals in these dead zones are then more likely to die from lack of oxygen.
Thankfully, alternatives to traditional toothpaste exist as well. For instance, toothpaste tablets generally consist of more eco-friendly ingredients than traditional toothpaste, and they tend to come in more sustainable packaging like recyclable glass jars. Plenty of online stores offer toothpaste tubes made of sustainable, biodegradable ingredients, such as aluminum or sugarcane tubes. Those looking to save extra money can even opt for DIY solutions, such as mixing baking soda with water and then brushing like normal.
Toothbrushes are no better
And then there is the matter of toothbrushes, which are often just as harmful as standard toothpaste packaging. Most traditional toothbrushes are made of plastic and nylon, a double whammy combination that does not mix well with landfills or the oceans and waterways they often end up in. Much like traditional floss, these toothbrushes get eaten by animals, at which point the brush may cut their stomachs and digestive organs or even suffocate them.
Several alternatives to plastic toothbrushes have been suggested by dental experts and environmental advocates, but the general consensus is that bamboo toothbrushes are some of the best of these. Unlike plastic, bamboo only lasts around six months before it fully biodegrades, which greatly reduces the risk of groundwater contamination and consumption by wildlife.
Even mouthwash isn’t safe
Consumers should also watch out for the type of mouthwash they buy, as certain brands are detrimental to the environment in the same ways toothpaste can be. Traditional mouthwash often comes in similarly nonbiodegradable plastic packaging, and specific brands contain chemicals such as cocamidopropyl betaine that can seep into waterways and seriously harm any aquatic life that happens to consume them.
Thankfully, plenty of online stores sell natural mouthwashes that forgo these toxic chemicals and come packaged in containers made of glass and other recyclable materials. Consumers can also opt to purchase mouthwash tablets that, much like toothpaste tablets, usually contain safer ingredients.
Since so many commercial dental products pose some environmental risk, it may be easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged. But ultimately, switching over to more eco-friendly dental hygiene is more than doable, especially for those with higher income. So many environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional dental products are readily available, and consumers don’t have to change much of their daily routine to make use of them, aside from paying more attention to packaging and ingredient labels. A little bit of awareness when caring for our teeth will be a big step toward protecting our planet.
- Swap your nylon floss for natural silk and/or water pick
- Choose toothpaste without colorants, sweeteners and other toxic ingredients
- Choose a bamboo toothbrush
- Choose a natural mouthwash
What are your thoughts on the environmental impacts of traditional dental products? Are there other sustainable alternatives that you had in mind? Let us know in the comments below!