When toothbrushes were first manufactured in 1780 they were made using coarse hairs and bone. Later, plastics were created and with growing ease and low-cost of production, it was inevitable that plastic would start to be used for oral hygiene – as natural materials can take a long time to dry out, resulting in bacterial growth and unpleasant odours. For many years, almost all toothbrushes were made using a plastic shaft and nylon fibre bristles, with perhaps a rubberised grip or silicone polishing cups.
Plastic, while being a robust material, takes around 400 years to break down once thrown away though. During that time it could leak toxic compounds into the ground. Burning plastic waste also releases the same toxic compounds – which then need to be captured and dealt with or else they pollute the air we breathe.
It is this recent awareness of the downsides to plastic that has driven demand for biodegradable alternatives. An eco-toothbrush you can throw on the compost heap once you’re finished with it.
The biggest problem with using natural materials in toothbrushes is that toothbrushes get wet. Traditional bristle material like pig or badger hair takes a long time to dry, and during the drying period, they offer the ideal environment for dangerous bacteria from your mouth to multiply. Wood expands when damp and this can lead to falling bristles, which are a nuisance when brushing and can become caught between tooth and gum.
What’s the alternative?
Bamboo is the most commonly available natural toothbrush handle material. The market for bamboo toothbrushes in the UK is booming, and there is a seemingly endless choice of models.
Many bamboo toothbrushes still have nylon bristles though. This is because there are few materials that meet modern hygiene standards and can be safely used for toothbrush bristles. It is possible, with a bit of searching to find toothbrushes that use the more traditional boar or badger bristle which makes the brush more eco-friendly as it is completely biodegradable. These brushes, however, require extra careful cleaning after use and should be allowed to dry out completely to avoid bacteria build-up. For this reason, some people prefer to keep two and use them alternately.
If you want to avoid plastic (nylon) bristles and you also want to avoid animal products your choices are more limited. You can search out a brush which specifies that it uses nylon-4 instead of the more common nylon-6. Nylon-4 is still plastic, but under certain conditions, it will degrade quickly which makes it more appealing than nylon-6.
Another alternative for those looking for a more eco bamboo toothbrush is bristles made with castor bean oil or bamboo fibre. These bristles are still not fully biodegradable as they are still mixed with around 33% nylon to form a bristle that can stand up to repeated brushing. Brushes made with bristles of these materials are usually designed so that you can easily remove the bristles with pliers prior to composting the handle.
Care of bamboo toothbrushes
Natural materials require a little bit of extra care to make them last. At replacement time, a standard plastic toothbrush may look almost as good as new, with perhaps a little splaying of the bristles to indicate that it has had it’s three months. A bamboo toothbrush will probably look quite faded and worn.
After brushing be sure to rinse the head well to remove all traces of toothpaste and to reduce the amount of bacteria lingering on the bristles. Shake off excess water then store it head upwards in a rack in a warm place, so the toothbrush dries fully. Don’t forget that the handle is also made of bamboo so storing in a cup is not ideal – the end of the brush will end up sitting in a puddle which will cause it to absorb moisture and start rotting.
When the time comes to replace your brush you will need to pull out the bristles and metal staple holding the bristles in place. The bristles will need to go to landfill, but the staple can be recycled with other metal, and the toothbrush handle is fully compostable, or perhaps you can find a way of reusing it? As a plant label or paint stirrer perhaps?
Features to watch out for
Handles made from Moso bamboo are a good choice as the bamboo grows quickly, without requiring fertiliser, and doesn’t attract pandas (encouraging them to remain in panda-safe areas). Heat-treatment of the bamboo makes it naturally water resistant so it will shake off drops that fall onto it while you’re brushing (you still need to avoid leaving it to stand in a puddle of water though).
Coloured bristles might seem like a gimmick – but if you are switching the whole family to bamboo toothbrushes, they make telling different brushes apart much easier. Alternatively, you will need to find a way of labelling individual handles.
Biodegradable packaging is almost a given for environmentally friendly toothbrushes – some come in boxes and others in envelopes. Envelopes probably use slightly fewer resources to make, but there’s more of a risk that your brush gets squashed in transit.
Charcoal bristles are, in fact, nylon-6, but they are infused with the natural antibacterial properties of charcoal, which is also supposed to whiten teeth and freshen breath.
Many brands have a choice of bristle hardness (usually soft or medium), and many offer smaller toothbrushes for use by children. Most bristle patterns are simple straight bristles, cut square, but some brushes offer a wave shape. Bamboo toothbrushes usually have rounded heads, although the head size varies considerably from very compact to quite large.
Where to buy
Most eco bamboo toothbrushes are sold directly from the manufacturers through websites or subscription services. The latter can be especially helpful as the advice is usually to replace bamboo toothbrushes slightly more frequently than plastic ones. Amazon offers a wide range of bamboo toothbrushes from many different manufacturers too.