There’s no perfect toothbrush, but some toothbrushes are less perfect than others, and sadly, a few of them aren’t even what they claim to be. Here are a few disappointing facts I have learned recently about other companies’ toothbrushes.
Fully Compostable = Animal-Based
Right now, the only completely compostable toothbrush has a handle made from sustainably harvested wood and bristles made from pig hair. (Here’s an example.) The pig hair is a by-product of the Chinese meat industry. It would normally have been thrown away. If you eat meat, perhaps this toothbrush would be the right decision for you. I personally have chosen not to use it because the only meat I eat comes from humanely raised animals from local farms in Sonoma or Marin Counties. Since I don’t know how the Chinese pigs are treated, I don’t feel comfortable using their bristles for a toothbrush. Perhaps one of the local pig farms out here could team up with a toothbrush manufacturer to develop a toothbrush I’d be more likely to trust.
What About Nylon-4?
Several toothbrush manufacturers claim that their bristles are made from Nylon-4, a petroleum-based plastic that has been shown in lab studies to biodegrade in the environment under certain conditions. However, lab studies and real life are not the same things, and none of these manufacturers has provided any third-party proof that their toothbrush bristles actually will biodegrade, especially not in the cold waters of the ocean. Furthermore, it is questionable whether all of them really contain Nylon-4 in the first place.
My friend, A-Hao, who owns a plastic-free products shop called Simple Eco Life in Taiwan, was selling a toothbrush called The Environmental Toothbrush, and she wanted to know if the bristles really were made from Nylon-4. (I reviewed this toothbrush back in 2011. At that time, the company’s website claimed the bristles were Nylon-4. And while the site no longer contains that claim, it does still state that “Both the bamboo and bristles will biodegrade into soil, without pollution.”) So A-Hao sent The Environmental Toothbrush to a lab in Taiwan to be tested.
Verdict: The Environmental Toothbrush bristles are made from Nylon-6, not Nylon-4 as claimed. Nylon-6 is not biodegradable, so the claim that they will biodegrade into soil without pollution is not true. Read the lab report here..
Be skeptical of toothbrush manufacturers that claim their bristles are made from Nylon-4 and ask to see the proof. According to A-Hao, western companies often do not communicate directly with their Chinese manufacturers but through an agency. It’s possible that they are being misled by the agencies that set up the manufacturing partnerships.
Still, when confronted with the truth, companies should update their advertising language. A-Hao sent the lab report to The Environmental Toothbrush company, and to date, they are still claiming their bristles are biodegradable without any kind of evidence to back up that claim.
Bristles Made from Bamboo?
Other companies claim that their bristles are made from bamboo. One company, in particular, was advertising that their bristles were made from 100% bamboo and were fully biodegradable. I received a sample of the toothbrush, and they seemed very much like Nylon to me. Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home put them to the “burn test,” holding them to a match to see if they would melt or burn. They melted just like plastic. So, inspired by A-Hao, I sent a sample to a lab to be tested, and sure enough, the bristles were found to be polyester.
So why am I not mentioning the name of the toothbrush company or posting the test results here? Because after I contacted the owner with the proof, he immediately changed the language on the website to indicate that the bristles are made from a BPA-free polymer and should be removed and thrown away before composting the handle. He was shocked to learn that his manufacturer in China had lied to him. I appreciate that kind of responsiveness, and since his website now reflects the truth about what he is selling, I don’t feel the need to call him out. He even offered to reimburse me for the testing fee.
Okay then, how about Charcoal-Enhanced Bamboo Bristles?
There’s another bamboo toothbrush that I’ve seen carried by Whole Foods and other natural foods stores. The text on the packaging claims that the bristles are made from charcoal-enhanced bamboo and that they are biodegradable. I’m going to send that one for testing next. I don’t believe the claims, and until I get the test results back, neither should you. (I’ll update this page when I have more information.)
Partially Plant-Based Bristles
Brush with Bamboo has just released an upgrade to their bamboo toothbrush, introducing bristles made from 62% castor bean oil. The new bristles are not biodegradable, but they are certified bio-based and contain less petroleum-based plastic than other toothbrushes do. I’ll have a complete review of the new toothbrush tomorrow. I trust Brush with Bamboo because they don’t make claims they can’t support.
It’s unfortunate that we can’t always believe claims on product labels and that ordinary consumers like me have to bear the expense of having products tested to find out the truth. But unless companies actually monitor manufacturing operations overseas and do their own testing of the product materials, they really don’t know what materials their product contains, despite what the manufacturer tells them. I’m guessing you could ask for a toothbrush made with unicorn horn bristles and find an overseas manufacturer to make it for you. In fact, they probably breed the unicorns at their special farm behind the factory just for that very purpose. Give them a call. But wait, there’s much, much more. They’ll throw in a ginsu knife if you act now.