Sales of environmentally friendly dental care products are steadily on the rise, but as business editor Maria Slade finds it isn’t easy being green.
Sorry planet Earth I’ve tried, truly I have, but I just can’t do bamboo toothbrushes. The feel of the rough wooden handles in my mouth is like fingernails on a blackboard.
And yet I’m not happy about tossing out a non-renewable plastic implement once every couple of months, either. The website of UK bamboo toothbrush maker MyBambooBrush claims Britons use a whopping 192 million toothbrushes a year. Whatever the veracity of that statistic, it is fairly evident a shedload of petrochemical-based nylon goes into landfills annually as a result of the modern human’s dental hygiene habits.
How to care for your pearly whites without adding to this environmental burden is something more and more New Zealanders are thinking about. A recent poll by customer insights agency Perceptive found that a quarter of Kiwis are now using an eco-friendly toothbrush. That figure is even higher among people aged 18-24, and of those who have not yet gone down the natural route 82% would consider giving it a go.
But as with most environmental issues, being eco-friendly in your oral care presents a number of conundrums. There is currently no straightforward way of recycling toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes in New Zealand, and many natural toothpastes that are supposedly better for the planet are also fluoride-free, which the dentistry profession warns is a tooth decay epidemic waiting to happen.
The Perceptive omnibus survey of 1000 New Zealanders found that of those using an eco-friendly toothbrush 38% are opting for bamboo. The New Zealand Dental Association is fine with bamboo brushes, saying they clean your teeth as well as anything else. Yet as my own experience shows they aren’t for everyone and from an environmental point of view it still involves chucking something in the rubbish.
Environmentally friendly cleaning and body products company Ecostore launched an oral care range in 2018. Its toothbrushes are made out of renewable castor oil-based nylon and can be sent back to Ecostore for recycling via its purpose-designed scheme. While overall the oral care category is flat, sales of the new range are growing steadily, the company says.
Ecostore R&D manager Huia Iti says it chose not to go down the bamboo route for several reasons. Firstly it prefers goods made from recyclable materials that remain in use rather than disposable items. Ecostore’s toothbrush handles are ground into chips and moulded into spanners which wholesale customers use to open its 20 litre bulk containers, for example. Secondly, bamboo toothbrushes still have a metal staple in the head holding the bristles in place, and that is going into landfill.
Toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes can’t be put into standard curbside recycling collections, and the Ecostore scheme relies on consumers proactively sending their used products back, Iti concedes. There is no perfect answer.
“You choose the best most sustainable option you’ve got and keep making improvements,” he says. “You can’t just sit back and wait until the perfect solution is there.”
New Zealanders haven’t embraced natural toothpastes at quite the same rate as they have environmentally kinder toothbrushes, but still the Perceptive survey shows 19% are using a ‘natural’ product and of those who don’t the vast majority would consider doing so.
There are a wide variety of products on the market, and one company offering a solution to the packaging dilemma is homegrown startup Pop Care. Its mint-sized Pop Tabs are chewed before the user brushes their teeth, and come in a single tin of 125.
While Pop Tabs contain fluoride, many natural dental care products including the Ecostore range do not. Ecostore wants to offer consumers choice, Iti says. “Based on our understanding and interpretation of the science, we have our doubts about fluoride itself and we’ve taken the precautionary approach and decided to avoid it.”
The company was forced to amend its claims about fluoride after a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority soon after the launch of its range, however. Rival natural toothpaste maker Grin also ran foul of Massey University for allegedly misrepresenting research into whether its products keep teeth healthy.
New Zealand Dental Association president Katie Ayers says it’s not always made clear that products are fluoride-free, and dentists want to see better labelling so that consumers are aware they may be putting their oral health at risk. “We’re seeing some individuals who have previously had minimal tooth decay suddenly developing a lot of new cavities after they have changed to a fluoride-free ‘eco’ toothpaste, sometimes without realising that their new toothpaste was not effective,” she says.
The profession has no issue with products being plant-based or leaving out additives such as sodium laurel sulphate which makes the paste foam. The problem is the absence of fluoride. A recent analysis of studies into the effectiveness of toothpaste was pretty clear, she says. “It basically found if you haven’t got fluoride in your toothpaste you might as well not bother.”
The good news is some natural toothpaste products now do contain fluoride, such as Grin’s Natural Whitening and Colgate’s Nature’s Extracts. Colgate is also attempting to address the packaging issue with a recycling scheme in conjunction with TerraCycle, although once again it requires consumers to proactively drop off used goods at a collection point.
While the trend towards more earth-friendly oral care is clear and growing, in the medium term the onus will remain on the consumer to do the mahi and research their options. Meanwhile could someone please invent a bamboo toothbrush that doesn’t feel like I’m sanding my mouth?
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