**This post is part of a 5-part series on healthy personal care products. If you missed it, Part 1 gives some background on the personal care product industry and healthy options for products used in the shower.
Tooth-brushing is a standard practice of oral hygiene so engrained in our daily routines that it’s hard to imagine life without it. But it’s actually a modern habit that didn’t exist en masse until the 18th century–and even then, there was no such thing as toothpaste to go along with it. People brushed with just water, or used toothpowders made of chalk, charcoal, or salt.
The mass-produced toothbrush and toothpaste we know of didn’t become popular until the first half of the 20th century. And at that time, toothpastes were made of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. Fluoride, the primary “anti-cavity” ingredient in modern toothpaste, wasn’t added until the mid-1950s.
Today, dentists recommend fluoride toothpaste to strengthen tooth enamel, which in turn protects against decay and helps to reduce the risk of cavities. But others argue that fluoride is not necessary to keep teeth healthy–first, because tooth decay is caused primarily by our high-sugar/high-grain modern diet, so we should just eat better to begin with (see here and here for more info); second, because toothpaste was never the real star of the show anyway (most of the cleansing we get from brushing our teeth comes from the mechanical action of the toothbrush); and third, because fluoride is toxic in large doses, and we already get more than enough of it from drinking tap water.
In the U.S., industrial-grade fluoride is added to municipal water systems, for the purpose of preventing tooth decay–a relic of 1950s-era public health policy instituting widespread use of chemicals to promote “healthier” and “cleaner” environments (the same policy that led to the mass spraying of DDT, since banned).
Yet while fluoride offers some topical benefit to tooth enamel, it doesn’t benefit teeth when ingested. In fact, regular ingestion of fluoride is dangerous and can negatively affect neurological development, thyroid function (hell, it used to be prescribed as an anti-thyroid drug), and bone health (it accumulates in bones over time, leading to more cases of arthritis and bone fractures). According to the World Health Organization, there’s no discernible difference in tooth decay between developed countries that add fluoride to their water and those that do not (most do not).
So, fluoride toothpaste and water fluoridation are not an ideal way to optimum oral health. But what do teeth need to stay healthy?
Teeth are actually living organs (yup! not bone) made mostly of calcium and phosphate. They loose minerals every day as acids in our food corrode their enamel and break down its mineral fibers (and not just major acid-contributors like coffee and soda, but also phytic acid, found in grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes). To stay healthy and strong, teeth need to “remineralize” themselves, a regenerative process involving both internal work (use of nutrients from the food we digest) as well as surface work in the form of saliva, which contains proteins, enzymes, and other compounds that help to remineralize teeth.
Although there are many natural and fluoride-free toothpastes on the market, they usually contain glycerin, which sticks to teeth, inhibiting natural remineralization, and therefore actually contributing to cavity formation.
For a fluoride- and glycerin-free toothpaste, try Earthpaste. It’s made with Bentonite clay (detoxifying and full of beneficial minerals) and salt, which has antibacterial properties and contains many trace minerals important for tooth remineralization. This toothpaste is so safe that you can swallow it and many of the ingredients are actually health-promoting when digested (although this is mostly just good to know, not really recommended for practice).
Earthpaste is definitely a different ballgame than the typical brightly-colored fluoride paste you may be used to, but it has a loyal following of users who rave about how gentle, clean-feeling, and whitening it is. Interestingly, its ingredients are very similar to the baking soda/sea salt toothpastes used long before fluoride became hot.
There’s not too much to be concerned about with selecting a toothbrush, except perhaps that billions of toothbrushes end up landfills every year. Preserve toothbrushes are made of recycled materials (except for the new nylon bristles) and are recyclable post-use as well. Preserve is a certified B Corp (yay!).
WooBamboo toothbrushes are made of biodegradable, sustainably harvested bamboo, which is naturally antimicrobial (plastic’s not) and BPA-free (if you’re counting). Both WooBamboo and Preserve toothbrushes are available on Amazon.
Compared to toothpaste, floss is much more important to dental hygiene, and much less complicated to choose. The only thing you’ll want to look out for is that you’re buying a natural-waxed product. Although dental floss was originally made from waxed thread (the wax coating helps the thread slide between your teeth), these days most conventional flosses are coated with perfluorinated polymers–compounds used in Teflon, which is gross and carcinogenic. These compounds bioaccumulate, and over time cause immune and endocrine system problems (oh, and cancer).
Most natural-waxed floss should be fine–Tom’s of Maine Natural Waxed Flat Floss is a pretty common one available in most drugstores.
Another good option is Dr. Tung’s Smart Floss, which is stretchy and clinically proven to remove more plaque because it expands into more spaces. It’s also softer on the gums and more comfy on the fingers. It’s made of a natural plant and beeswax coating.
Over-the-counter mouthwash is effective in ridding your mouth of harmful bacteria, but it also leaves behind residue of some equally (if not more so) unhealthy chemicals. Conventional mouthwash is also mostly alcohol-based, which dries out your mouth, reducing saliva (which, as we know from above, is necessary for tooth remineralization).
Natural mouthwash options abound, but most contain glycerin (again, an issue for tooth remineralization).
Fortunately, healthy and effective mouthwash is easy to make at home. You can do it the old-fashioned way (mix one part hydrogen peroxide and one part water in a shotglass and swish), or try a more flavorful recipe like this Natural Peppermint Antiseptic Mouthwash from The Hippy Homemaker or this DIY Herbal Mouthwash from Body Unburdened. The Free People Blog also has a really simple recipe for 3 Ingredient All Natural Peppermint Mouthwash.
Both over-the-counter and dentist-prescribed whitening products contain harsh ingredients that harm tooth enamel and gums over time. The best bet for “healthy” teeth-whitening is activated charcoal, a jet-black powder made of burned stuff that’s been purified and reduced to pure carbon. The carbon is “activated” by being processed with gases that render it incredibly porous–and give it a large surface area for adsorption (adhering to things).
Activated charcoal whitens teeth by adsorbing the tannins (compounds in coffee, tea, etc.) that stain them. The charcoal does not interact with tooth enamel, so is safe to use regularly. And it’s also great because it balances the pH in your mouth, which helps protect against pathogens that cause gum and tooth decay.
Learn more about the process of using activated charcoal to whiten teeth in the Activated Charcoal: Whiten Teeth Naturally! post.