Since Tom’s of Maine switched from recyclable aluminum toothpaste tubes to plastic laminate a few months ago, I’ve been getting tons of emails asking what less plastic option to use instead. I looked at the change as a challenge to finally figure out a better toothpaste alternative. Aluminum was good (you could send the tubes back to the company to be recycled) but not perfect because of a) the plastic cap and threads, and b) the resin lining inside the tube which possibly contained BPA.
So, after much research and some harrowing moments, here are the Plastic-Free or Less Plastic tooth cleaner solutions I’ve discovered. There are many, many more out there. Your suggestions and input are welcome!
Make Your Own Tooth Powder
Google is full of recipes for making your own tooth powder. Here are two ideas.
1) Baking Soda and Salt Tooth Powder. When I first started my plastic-free project, I tried making my own tooth powder with baking soda, salt, stevia for sweetness, and essential oils for flavoring. After a while, I omitted the salt because it was just too, you know, salty. Some people find baking soda to be too abrasive, but if it works for you, go for it.
2) Calcium Carbonate Tooth Powder. Looking at my tube of Tom’s of Maine, I saw that the main ingredient after glycerin and water is calcium carbonate. Thinking that perhaps calcium carbonate is less abrasive than baking soda and salt, I looked into purchasing it in bulk and making tooth powder from that. But where do you buy food grade calcium carbonate? And where do you find it without plastic? All the online vendors I found sell the stuff either in a plastic bottle or a plastic bag.
Finally, I discovered a ceramics supply store in my area that sells calcium carbonate as “whiting” in a paper bag. I bought 5 pounds for 5 bucks and thought I was all set… until I saw the California Prop 65 Warning sticker, which says, “Do not take internally and do not allow contamination of food stuffs.” I think — but I don’t know for sure — that the reason for the warning is that calcium carbonate powder can cause lung problems if you breathe it in. But whether this stuff is okay to put in my mouth or not, I realized that it wasn’t manufactured for food use and who knows what it could be contaminated with? If you’re going to make tooth powder with calcium carbonate, it’s probably best to buy the food grade version in the plastic bag (or try to find food grade calcium carbonate in bulk). After all, the plastic around 5 pounds of calcium powder is less packaging than the comparable number of plastic tubes you’d need to contain the same amount of toothpaste.
A recipe on The Rucksack web site contains: 13 tablespoons of calcium carbonate, 4 tablespoons baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, 25 drops peppermint oil, 12 drops cinnamon oil. If anyone tries this, please let us know how it works out!
Pre-made Tooth Powder
3) Aquarian Bath’s Tooth Powder. Cory from Aquarian Bath makes two kinds of tooth powder: cinnamon stick or black licorice. The powder comes in a metal tin, but Cory also sells refills which come in your choice of baggie: plastic or glassine paper. (Ask for glassine, which is plastic-free.) She sent me a tin of the cinnamon stick tooth powder to try out. Ingredients: food grade Bentonite Clay, Organic Ceylon Cinnamon Powder, Activated Charcoal, 5x Myrhh powder, and organic stevia.
It took a little getting used to because the powder is black from the charcoal and a little messy, but it washes away cleanly and smoothly. I liked it. Cory told me that all her shipping materials are compostable or reused and that she is happy to honor requests for plastic-free packaging. Check out the rest of her store. It’s great!
4) Uncle Harry’s Tooth Powder. Uncle Harry’s tooth powder usually comes in a plastic container or a glass jar with a plastic lid. But several readers have told me that they will sell it to you in bulk by the 1/2lb or 1lb in a paper bag if you request it. Ingredients: Calcium carbonate (natural chalk), mustard seed powder, sea salt, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove, wintergreen, and oregano essential oils.
Have you found any other tooth powders that are sold without any plastic packaging? Please let us know.
Tooth Cleaning Tablets
5) Lush Toothy Tabs. 2016 Update: Sadly, Lush is now selling Toothy Tabs in a plastic bottle instead of a cardboard box. I no longer use or recommend them!
Blogger Fonda LaShay from Mint & Chilli has been urging me to try brushing my teeth with soap. And she posted a long treatise on her blog about why she doesn’t use toothpaste. There is the opinion that glycerin in toothpaste coats the teeth and doesn’t allow them to remineralize. I haven’t formed my own opinion on that point. But I do think brushing with soap could be a great idea to reduce the number of products we have to buy. How simple! So I tried it.
6) Natural vegetable soap without added glycerin. To brush your teeth with soap, it’s recommended to use a soap without added glycerin. Glycerin is a natural byproduct of soap-making, and unless the glycerin has been removed, most soap contains some. But you just want to make sure that glycerin is not an added ingredient listed on the label. First, I chose a plain olive oil soap. I brushed my wet toothbrush over the bar, started brushing and…
Yes, I did. The soap taste was just too much to bear. Now, some people don’t mind it. And some people say you just have to get used to it. So I tried again and again. And finally threw up in the sink. Enough!
I thought maybe I was using the wrong kind of soap. So I bought a couple of bars of PlantLife soap, which looked like they were wrapped in plain paper (but which later turned out to be plastic!) and contained peppermint and anise oils. First, I tried the peppermint. It started okay. I could taste the peppermint. So far so good. And then the soap flavor came through, and I…
Not good. Not using bar soap. But seriously, you guys should try it. Some people love brushing with soap. But then again, some people love cilantro, another substance that makes me gag.
7) Rose of Sharon Acres tooth chips. Tooth chips are tiny shreds of soap made especially for tooth brushing. They come in a metal tin without plastic. Wondering if I would have the same gag reflex with tooth chips as I did with bar soap, I asked my friend blogger Lisa Sharp to send me a tiny sample of hers to try. I didn’t want to buy a whole container if the stuff was just going to waste. A couple of hours ago, I decided to gather my courage to try them out. I put one between my teeth, bit down a little, and then started brushing with my wet toothbrush. At first, I tasted the sweet flavor. Okay, not so bad, until… that soap flavor and…
And oh my god, I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth. There was tooth soap stuck in my back tooth, and I couldn’t get it brushed out fast enough.
Look, I feel bad saying anything negative about this product. The ingredients are great: Saponified Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Sodium olivate), Saponified Coconut Oil (Sodium Cocoate), Saponified Organic Palm Oil (Sodium palmate), Xylitol, essential oils. I simply can’t put saponified anything into my mouth. And you know what else? I don’t have to eat cilantro either. Or broccoli!
There are recipes out there for making your own toothpaste. Basically, they are like tooth powder, but you add coconut oil or glycerin (if you feel glycerin is okay for teeth) or both to make a paste. Here are a few I’ve found but haven’t tried yet.
12) Bentonite Clay, Xylitol, Water. Reader Kacie has been brushing with bentonite clay (which you might find in bulk at a health food store or Whole Foods) and says she thinks it might be remineralizing her teeth. You can also skip the water and use it as a powder.
It seems to me that with any of these recipes you could substitute whatever essential oil(s) you want. You could also add Neem oil or Neem powder. I found neem powder in bulk at my Whole Foods, but haven’t tried brushing with it yet. Use bentonite clay instead of calcium or baking soda. There are all kinds of options. Just be creative.
Brush without Toothpaste
Do we really need to use toothpaste or tooth powder at all? Maybe not. Reader E.K. Sommers wrote to me that there’s no need for toothpaste. I keep hearing that the most important thing is the physical act of brushing and flossing. If we brush with plain water or even a dry toothbrush and floss well, do we really need toothpaste at all?