Brushing your teeth in the morning (and the evening) has become as much a part of everyday life as going to sleep each night.
With that in mind, it is easy to forget that in America alone one billion toothbrushes are thrown away each year (this is enough to wrap around the planet four times), with almost all of these being plastic which can take as long as 1000 years to break down.
Every single toothbrush which has been manufactured since the 1930’s, when Nylon and other plastics made their way into toothbrushes, is still somewhere to be found on the planet today.
A relatively old, but still relevant study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey of Americans’ perceptions about inventing and innovating, found that technologically advanced items such as mobile phones or laptops lagged significantly behind the toothbrush when asked which invention (out of toothbrush, automobile, personal computer, cell phone and microwave) they could not live without.
So, it is evident that brushing the teeth is a fundamentally important aspect to people’s everyday lives.
The problem then, as is common in almost all consumer goods, is the manufacturing process behind the toothbrushes.
History of Oral Hygiene
Long before toothbrushes were invented, people conjured up different methods of keeping their teeth clean and their breath fresh, with oral hygiene being a hot topic throughout the ages.
In 3000 B.C., ancient civilisations used a “chew stick” which was a thin stick with a frayed end; in Ancient Egypt, toothpicks were common and placed with the dead to be used in the afterlife; in Greece, philosopher Aristotle and physician Hippocrates wrote about various aspects of oral health including tooth decay, gum disease and tooth extraction.
In 700 A.D. China a “silver paste” was used as an amalgam (combination of metals, typically silver, mercury, tin and copper) to maintain good oral hygiene and health before inventing the bristle toothbrush, similar to what we know today, in 1498. This was made from either a bone or bamboo handle and the course hairs on the back of a hog’s neck were attached to form the bristles.
Moving towards the late 19th century, war became a driving factor for dental care to be accessible to all – rich and poor alike. The primary reason for this is during the American Civil War, guns were loaded one shot at a time with bullets being wrapped in heavy paper. Due to soldier’s lack of teeth, this made tearing the bullets open a problem.
Poor dental hygiene provided yet another problem during World War One as the young men the Army wished to recruit were required to have six healthy, opposing teeth, in order to be able to eat the tough, dry, military rations. Many failed this test.
World War Two soldiers were handed out toothbrushes, with dentists residing in battalions; these tooth brushing habits remained when the soldiers returned from war.
Alongside this, cultural expectations around dental hygiene began to shift with bad teeth becoming a sign of poor nutrition, disease or just a general lack of personal hygiene.
Why Are Toothbrushes Made of Plastic?
Due to the heavy demand of toothbrushes beginning in the early 1900’s, an affordable and commercial solution was needed.
This requirement fell at a time when new materials called plastics were being invented. Today most toothbrushes are made from injection moulded plastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene.
What separates plastic from other materials that are used for toothbrushes is the health impact on teeth. Plastic is resilient to bacterial action therefore the plastic will not break down when exposed to the bacteria on teeth whilst the toothbrush is being used.
More efficient sanitisation of the toothbrush is also an added benefit with plastic.
DuPont, founded by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, began the initial research program in Polymers in 1927. In 1938 an announcement was made that Nylon had been discovered.
Nylon is now used in almost all toothbrush bristles, as it is a strong and flexible material which does not break down or degrade in water or with the types of ingredients which are typically found in toothpaste.
Nylon 4 (in the right conditions) is compostable, although most toothbrushes use Nylon 6 which is not.
Plastic Free Toothbrushes
In our search for a 100% plastic free toothbrush, we found that the only completely compostable toothbrushes have a bamboo or wood handle and the bristles are made from animal hair, such as a pig.
Other alternatives include charcoal infused, plant based, castor oil based and bamboo bristles. However, these bristles still include a small percentage of Nylon.
With that said, it appears (and please do comment below with a correction if the following statement is incorrect) that there is not currently a commercial solution which is 100% plastic free.
How to Decide Which Toothbrush is Right for You
It is a sad state of affairs, that the technology just does not seem to be available at present. It is not for the lack of trying, as we have read of and spoken to companies who have attempted to find a 100% plastic free solution.
We will, however, continue the search.
The decision ultimately is up to you. If you are seeking a “plastic free” alternative, then you could choose to cut out as much plastic from the toothbrush as possible. You could opt for a toothbrush which has bristles with a plant or castor oil base and a small percentage of Nylon 4.
These toothbrushes often come with a handle made from bamboo or sustainably sourced wood and are a very good, feasible place to start.
The Ancient tradition of using a Miswak has also seen spikes in trending.
The Miswak is a teeth cleaning twig made from the Salvadora persica tree which is used by cutting or chewing the bark off of the end the twig, chewing the centre until it becomes soft and forms bristles and dipping in water before using the bristled end to brush your teeth.
As well as being an effective toothbrush, the Miswak can also be used as a mouthwash alternative. Those who use Miswak have reported whiter teeth, fresh breath and a reduction in plaque.
Post your thoughts below!