The next several posts will take a look at the things we use or consume over a typical day from a social and environmental point of view. To keep posts to a reasonable length I’ll just look at a few aspects of each example, but let me know if you want more on a specific topic. So, rise and shine, it’s time to get up and brush your teeth!
Do we need to buy toothpaste?
My former dentist (now retired) was used to me asking questions about dentistry every time I visited (I think that’s why he retired – nervous exhaustion). On one visit, I was shocked when he told me that using toothpaste doesn’t actually make that much difference – brushing with a wet toothbrush is pretty much as effective. This broadens the question from which toothpaste to choose to whether it’s necessary at all. A motivation for some people to avoid toothpaste is to reduce waste – those ubiquitous plastic toothpaste tubes are not recyclable, unless you collect them and send to Terracycle or repurpose them into pen or toothbrush holders. Many (like Julia Roberts) are opting to make their own from simple ingredients like baking soda, coconut oil and peppermint oil – or just straight baking soda. Even Crest and Colgate have pages dedicated making your own toothpaste that are surprisingly positive, considering that they have a vested interest in you not doing this. Crest does argue against baking soda, saying that it’s messy, gritty, doesn’t contain fluoride and is not ADA-approved. The American Dental Association won’t approve toothpastes without fluoride, so the last two points boil down to whether or not fluoride is important to you, and the first two are a matter of personal priorities – it’s actually not gritty or messy (you just dip your brush in a jar of baking soda) and surprisingly tastes pretty good. It also creates a healthy alkaline pH, one of the key issues for oral health. But do some research and/or ask your dentist or hygienist before you decide.
You can always take a middle path and use toothpaste at a reduced rate – a truly pea-sized amount is all you need per brush – and alternate that by brushing with baking soda or just a wet brush. That way, a tube of toothpaste will last one person for two years!
What’s in it?
Toothpaste is basically a combination of three components: an abrasive agent (such as calcium carbonate), a surfactant (such as SLS), and fluoride. SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate, aka SDS) is one of those ingredients that received a lot of attention; the bottom line is that it’s not carcinogenic, but may be irritating, especially if you are prone to canker sores (mouth ulcers). Some people prefer not to use fluoride: it has its risks (the amount in half a tube of toothpaste can kill a child, for example) but most dental professionals agree that its benefits outweigh the risks (more info on fluoride in the product reviews cited at the end). The direction the manufacturer takes with the remaining ingredients says a lot about the company – many are cosmetic and are generally superfluous (colors, artificial flavors, sweeteners, thickeners, etc.) and sometimes turn out to be environmentally hazardous (e.g., microbeads, often listed as polyethylene). It’s useful to know how a product works before you start rating it, and it’s always useful to look at the upstream (manufacturing) and downstream (disposal) impact of ingredients. I’ll look into this topic in later posts such as laundry detergent. Sometimes it’s better to research a few aspects of the product fairly deeply rather than a shallow broad approach, so that you start to build up an understanding of how stuff works (but to be also aware of the other issues when you decide on a rating).
Animal testing is commonly considered an important concern in cosmetics and body care items. There are at least four levels to this:
- Companies that test on animals and have been slow to change (e.g., Crest, made by P&G; Sensodyne, made by GlaxoSmithKline; Arm & Hammer, made by Church & Dwight)
- Companies that do still occasionally test when required by law (in certain countries) but are rated by PETA as working hard towards solutions (e.g., Colgate).
- Companies that don’t test, but their parent company does (e.g., Tom’s of Maine, owned by Colgate-Palmolive)
- Companies that don’t test (e.g., Nature’s Gate)
You may also come across companies that don’t test finished products on animals but may use ingredients that are animal-tested. Look for a cruelty-free logo (PETA-approved) and/or a clear statement on the product packaging or website.
PETA, who also have a searchable database covering most companies, clarify that the approval process involves “evaluation of ingredients, ingredient suppliers, formulations, and finished products”. Here’s PETA’s list of companies that do test on animals.
I’ve reviewed two toothpastes – Tom’s of Maine and Nature’s Gate. Tom’s product is pretty streamlined in terms of ingredients, and Nature’s Gate has similar basic ingredients but also includes some plant extracts that may be helpful. Both are above average when looking at the broader picture of carbon footprint, packaging materials, waste minimization, water footprint, and charitable or community contributions.
I’ll leave you with this dope rap about brushing your teeth…