Cool photo, huh? It’s a plastic DenTek floss pick. I see them all over the streets around here. Our litter bugs have good oral hygiene. Anyway, this one did not come from the gutter. It is MY plastic floss pick. The Teflon (boo hiss!) tape finally broke last week after many, many uses. No, I wouldn’t buy plastic floss picks myself, but in a moment of desperation, having forgotten my own dental floss, I begged one from a coworker. I’ve kept it in my desk drawer at work and cleaned and reused it over and over again.
I’m going to discuss green(er) flossing options. But first, an update on my current efforts to de-plastify my oral hygiene. Sadly, it’s one area of my life in which there is still a lot of plastic, although significantly reduced. I’m not willing to compromise too much as far as my teeth and gums are concerned. Bacteria in the mouth have been linked to serious systemic illnesses. Plus, fillings and crowns and other dental work are not particularly eco-friendly, even if you do have the greenest dentist in town.
Here are the supplies I use:
I use a Preserve toothbrush made from 100% recycled polypropylene plastic, the kind that yogurt cups (and Brita filters!) are made from. Preserve will take back the toothbrushes, as well as all other number 5 plastics, at the end of their lives and recycle them into new Preserve products. While I have a problem with community recycling programs that ship their waste off to China, I support companies that practice “Extended Producer Responsibility” and take back their own waste. What’s more, Preserve does the recycling here in the U.S. rather than abroad.
Wooden toothbrushes with natural boar bristles. As you can see from the link, the toothbrush comes in a plastic case, so what’s the point? And second, I personally don’t like the idea of killing a boar for a toothbrush. While some companies claim their bristles come from humanely raised boars, I am skeptical. (And no, I don’t eat meat anymore either. But that is a recent, personal development and not necessarily relevant to this blog.)
After trying unsuccessfully to use various baking soda concoctions, and finding that all of them were too harsh for my teeth and gums, I finally reverted back to toothpaste. I keep it as waste-free as possible by 1) Using a very tiny amount. (It’s not the toothpaste that’s so important as the motion of brushing and especially the flossing.) 2) Choosing Tom’s of Maine SLS-Free toothpaste because that company too has a take back program for its aluminum tubes. After removing the plastic cap and threads, you can send the tube to:
Tom’s of Maine
Consumer Dialogue Team
302 Lafayette Center
Kennebunk, ME 04043
A note on BPA: It’s true that the lining of a Tom’s of Maine aluminum tube, like all aluminum containers, may contain some BPA. However, it’s also true that many other plastics contain chemicals that can leach. What chemicals are in plastic toothpaste tubes? We don’t know, and manufacturers won’t tell us. So my choice is a recyclable metal tube with less plastic.
My dentist recommends Dental Herb Company Tooth and Gum Tonic. It is very concentrated, so I use a tiny bit diluted with water. The rinse comes in a glass bottle. Unfortunately, as you can see, the cap is plastic, as is the label. I tried making my own mouth rinse early on, using various herbs and spices in vodka. Then I learned that alcohol is too harsh. The tonic I now use is alcohol-free. It’s basically herbs and essential oils in a base of water and vegetable glycerin.
So, about those flossing options I mentioned above. I won’t be going out to buy a package of plastic picks with their toxic Teflon floss, even if they can be washed and reused over and over again. And I’m also not going to wash and reuse regular dental floss, as some uber-greenies have suggested. Any floss that’s tough enough to stand up to repeated uses is probably made of some scary material that I don’t want in my mouth anyway.
Eco-Dent:My choice, after weighing all the options, is Eco-Dent dental floss. It’s what I’ve been using for the past two years, and I really like it. Unlike any other brand of dental floss I have found, it comes in a recyclable cardboard container. That was the deciding factor for me. While there is a very thin plastic wrapper inside the box and two protective plastic stickers on the outside, the amount of plastic packaging is minimal compared to all other brands.
What’s more, the floss is waxed using 100% vegetable waxes rather than beeswax or petroleum-based wax. The Gentle floss contains enzymes that help break down food particles between the teeth. The Vegan floss does not, as those enzymes are grown on a dairy substrate. Either sounds great, right? Well…
The floss itself is made from Nylon. Plastic. But I’ve compared Eco-Dent to other brands of floss, and to me, it’s the best choice currently offered.
Radius: Radius natural dental floss is made from silk. If you’re vegan, forget it. If you’re not (I’m not), you still have to consider the packaging. The outer cardboard box can fool you. Inside is a regular plastic dental floss container.
Tom’s of Maine: The floss is made from Nylon with a hard plastic container inside the cardboard box.
DenTek Natural Floss Picks: In addition to their plastic floss picks, DenTek has created an “eco” option: individual disposable floss picks made from compostable starch rather than petroleum-based plastic. According to the company, they will break down in 180 days at a commercial compost facility. And the FAQ on the web site includes a link to instructions for building your own compost bin if you don’t have a commercial facility nearby. It seems like a green idea. But when you dig into the reality of it, you find just more greenwashing.
- Most commercial facilities process their compost at a much faster rate than 180 days. At Jepson Prairie, the facility that handles San Francisco’s compost, the material is “cooked” for 60 days and then “cured” for 30 days. Would DenTek picks break down in that short of a time?
- The floss picks come in a big plastic bag, so there’s really no plastic savings there. The company advertises the bag as recyclable, but unless they are willing to take back that bag and recycle it themselves, it’s not likely to get recycled anywhere.
- The floss itself is Nylon, so where is the benefit over regular Nylon dental floss?
- The “natural” picks don’t work well. In short, according to reviews on Amazon.com and Drugstore.com, they suck. Users complain that the floss doesn’t slide well and breaks too easily. So the argument can’t even be made for washing and reusing them over and over again like I did with my toxic Teflon pick.
- Way more materials and energy go into producing floss picks with their plastic handles (regardless of what the handles are made from) than plain dental floss. Unless there is some reason why you can’t use regular dental floss and must use a pick, I’d recommend skipping these.
Bryton Picks: Okay, this option just seems weird. I had to post the picture from the site because I couldn’t even figure out how to accurately describe these things. Bryton picks are not floss. Instead, they are made from flexible stainless steel strips that you slide up and down between each tooth. The handle is made from plastic. On the plus side, the device can be cleaned and reused for up to a month, probably longer. But I simply can’t imagine them actually working in the way that dental floss is supposed to work — below the gum line and around the teeth.
I’ll ask my dentist and get back to you.
Glide and other mainstream flosses: They’re made from Nylon or Teflon (worse), come in plastic containers, usually inside plastic blister packs, and are synthetically waxed. So why even consider them?
One Final Word
I’d love to hear your solutions for greener, less plastic dental hygiene. But I’m not willing to go to extremes to get the plastic out at the expense of my mouth. Part of my goal with this blog/project is to find out just where my limits are — to learn what I am and am not willing to give up. The changes I make don’t have an expiration date. They have to be sustainable for a lifetime.
And one more word after that.
My dentist founded the Eco Dentistry Association, which supports dentists everywhere in finding greener ways to practice dentistry, from reducing unnecessary disposable plastic to finding less toxic treatments. Refer your dentist to the organization’s web site for more information.