If you have found your way to this article, you may want to know if an electric toothbrush exists that doesn't have a significant impact on the environment.
If we're going by the dictionary definition of eco-friendly, "not harmful to the environment", then no, there is no such thing as an eco-friendly electric toothbrush.
But if you do need an electric toothbrush, it may be possible to pick an option that is more environmentally friendly than others.
Why electric toothbrushes are bad for the environment
A group of researchers looked into this and published their results in the British Dental Journal.
They did a life cycle assessment of a few different types of toothbrushes and found that the electric toothbrush did not fare well when it comes to the impact on the environment.
It is important to note that the only way you can really decide whether something has a lower impact on the environment is by doing a life cycle assessment.
These are usually completed by the companies that make the product, following strict international criteria (ISO 14040/44).
The researchers found that over its lifetime, an electric toothbrush has 11 times more impact on the environment compared to a bamboo toothbrush.
Reasons why electric toothbrushes are not eco-friendly include:
- The number of unique parts required, and the materials used.
- Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries
- Copper wiring
- Plastics for casing
- The power and water required to produce a more complex toothbrush.
- The additional materials needed to package an electric toothbrush and its components.
- This often includes difficult to recycle plastics such as polystyrene protective packaging and thin plastic bags.
- Additional energy requirements for transporting a heavier product.
- Additional energy requirements at home for charging the brush.
- The need for specific waste electrical recycling.
When it comes to the total environmental impact of an electric toothbrush, there is a large impact from the materials and parts used as well as the transportation phases.
Should you use an electric toothbrush if you are concerned about the environment?
This isn’t an easy question to answer as there are many factors at play. It also depends on your personal preference.
You need to balance effective cleaning and disease prevention with the most environmentally friendly option.
There is plenty of evidence to show that electric toothbrushes reduce the levels of plaque in your mouth and specifically:
- The Cochrane Collaboration review states: "Powered toothbrushes reduce plaque and gingivitis more than manual toothbrushing in the short and long term."
- Pitchika et al found that using an electric toothbrush reduces caries progression, helps to maintain the number of teeth in the mouth and reduces the progression of periodontal disease.
If there is a reduction in disease by using the electric toothbrush, then this is obviously one benefit of using it, despite its environmental impact.
In fact, prevention and self care are two of the four factors for sustainable clinical practice in dentistry.
Electric toothbrushes can reduce the need for dental treatment, and the potential for a negative impact that comes from it, such as:
- Mercury pollution from amalgam fillings (removing old ones, or placing new ones).
- The use of single use products, such as needles for local anaesthetic and other instruments,
- Production of plastic due to decontamination of reusable instruments and equipment, which are all wrapped individually for single patient use.
There is a lack of evidence on the amount of plastic used and pollutant produced from one filling. In fact there would be a lot of variation in the impact assessment of a procedure compared to the life of an electric toothbrush.
But with the data that is available, and knowing how to do the procedure, I am sure that one filling is worse for the environment than an electric toothbrush that lasts the 5 years estimated in the research.
With that said, there is evidence to say that appropriate use of a manual toothbrush can provide almost the same level of cleaning.
Often it’s not what you use, but how you use it. As a dentist, I see that electric toothbrushes make the job easier for my patients.
But patients who are willing to spend time learning the best technique can use a manual toothbrush instead.
Are some electric toothbrushes more eco-friendly than others?
Yes, arguably some electric toothbrushes will have less of an environmental impact than others.
In fact, the authors of the paper mentioned previously acknowledge that electric toothbrushes are an area that is constantly evolving.
There is a lot of difference between different manufacturers when it comes to:
- Manufacturing materials and processes.
- Weight of brushes and packaging.
- How easy the brush is to repair and recycle.
A significant percentage of the carbon emissions created in the lifespan of an electric toothbrush come from shipping it around the world.
The lighter a brush is, the lower its emissions will be (hypothetically).
Some electric toothbrushes ship with extra box contents, such as a smartphone holder. This adds to the weight of the package, and often aren’t used at home. So consider brushes with minimal accessories.
Some brushes also contain specialist components ( e.g. the OLED display in the Oral-B iO). These parts are an additional burden to the production and recycling processes.
This is one of the reasons we don't recommend smart electric toothbrushes.
More advanced technology can also make brushes more difficult to repair, reducing the lifespan of a brush.
If you are able to repair a toothbrush yourself, which is still the case with brushes that have a simpler design, you can extend the lifespan of a toothbrush.
Using products for as long as possible is important when it comes to protecting the environment.
Some manufacturers may also operate a takeback or recycling scheme for their brushes and/or replacement heads. This is rare at the moment, and most advise you to use local recycling schemes.
At present, no studies have been conducted to investigate the environmental impact of different electric toothbrushes.
The difference in impact between various electric brushes may be negligible compared to switching to a manual toothbrush.
A few models to consider based on this information
As mentioned above, the difference in impact between various electric brushes may be negligible compared to switching to a manual toothbrush.
And at present, there are no studies that compare the impact of various electric toothbrushes to one another.
That being said, there are some ways to distinguish between them, so below are some suggestions based on what we've discussed in this article.
SURI is possibly the most environmentally considerate electric toothbrush available at the moment.
It has focussed on repairability with its brush design. If the brush breaks, you can send it back to them for repair. It will also come with a lifetime guarantee for those on the subscription plan.
The SURI brush heads are made from bio-based PLA, which means the plastic they are made from is created using a renewable resource (corn) rather than a finite resource (oil). Eventually it should be possible to industrially compost them.
SURI also operates a take back scheme for its brush heads (in the UK and USA). It comes with a prepaid mailer so that you can send the brush heads back for recycling once you are done with them.
See our SURI toothbrush review for more details.
Foreo Issa 2
The Foreo Issa 2 (available here on Nourished Life) is potentially a good option with its long lasting battery and heads which are made of silicone.
Silicone heads have the advantage in that they do not need to be replaced as often as traditional bristle brushes.
There's also the Quip electric toothbrush - which has a 3-month battery life, using AAA batteries rather than an in-built rechargeable option.
We haven’t completed hands on testing with the following, but if you are interested in an electric toothbrush which could be more environmentally friendly, you could look at:
- Happy Brush - Made by a German company, and produced in China. The company is passionate about the environment and uses bio-based plastics in manufacturing, as well as plastic free packaging. The brush has two versions: a rotating head option and a sonic version, both of which are lightweight (108g - 114g depending on brush).
- Georganics Sonic Brush which comes in plastic free packaging (compostable). Georganics as a company focuses on reducing their impact on the environment, and runs a zero to landfill scheme.
How to choose an eco-friendly toothbrush
At the end of the day, a manual toothbrush will be better for the environment. But you might still want or need an electric toothbrush for better cleaning.
So what can you look for when buying a brush so that you choose one that is more eco-friendly?
How can you limit the impact that you have?
Again, there is very little research into this. But using general sustainability principles, you may want to think about the following options:
- Choose the right product for you. Avoid gimmicks.
- Avoid buying something which you will use once or twice and then not use it again.
- You want to avoid having unused things sat at home, which is potentially a waste of materials (and money!).
- Choose a simple brush that is lightweight and doesn’t come with lots of accessories.
- It will require fewer raw materials to make.
- It is lighter to transport, reducing emissions.
- It is more likely to be repairable (and therefore last longer).
- Our recommendation for the best electric toothbrush for most people is a brush that is relatively light compared to others.
- Consider the packaging used by the company.
- Do they offer plastic free and recycled packaging?
- Can you recycle the packaging they send the brush to you in?
- Think about how the product is delivered to you - can you off-set the emissions?
- Pick a brush that has a long lifespan. You can see if we have reviewed your brush already.
- Opt for a refurbished brush.
- These are brushes that may have needed some sort of repair or which are sent back after the box has been opened. The brushes are still usable.
- This prevents a usable brush from being sent to landfill.
- Opt for a brush from a more ethical company.
- Check their environmental policies.
- See if they have a recycling scheme for when your toothbrush is no longer usable.
- Avoid companies that are greenwashing - using environmentally friendly terminology for their own financial gain, without actually having a positive impact.
- See if there are any good alternative brand toothbrush heads available for your brush.
- You don’t need to use brush heads made by the manufacturer. Other companies might have a better alternative for your brush.
What about a bamboo electric toothbrush?
Something that seems to be an emerging trend is electric toothbrushes and electric toothbrush heads made of bamboo.
At the moment there is no evidence to suggest these have a lesser environmental impact than plastic electric toothbrushes and toothbrush heads.
We go into more detail about this in our article on bamboo electric toothbrushes.
How you can reduce the environmental impact of your electric toothbrush
If you do feel that opting for an electric toothbrush is the best choice for you, there are some steps you can take to reduce its impact on the planet.
1. Look after your brush
Taking care of your brush by cleaning it regularly will help it to last longer.
Regularly clean the handle to stop build ups of limescale or dirt.
Read the manufacturer's information about the waterproof rating and follow this to avoid water damage.
If you have problems with your brush, repair it instead of discarding it. Spare parts are available and sometimes the battery can be replaced if it stops working.
2. Dispose of your brush properly when you are finished with It
If you do own an electric toothbrush and want to minimise its impact, you can at least make sure it is disposed of properly when you are finished with it.
Toothbrush heads require regular replacement. Find out how to recycle toothbrush heads.
Electric toothbrush handles that contain batteries are electric waste and should be disposed of properly.
In the UK, these are considered to be waste electricals and electronics (WEEE) and have special rules to follow.
Do not put electric toothbrush handles in general waste. For more information about how to recycle an electric toothbrush, see our guide here.
Consider a manual toothbrush
When it comes to toothbrushes that don’t have an impact on the environment, electric toothbrushes are the worst option.
When compared to manual toothbrushes, electric toothbrushes require more carbon to produce and ship, and they contain electrical components which can contribute to e-waste.
Therefore, if you are trying to minimise your impact on the environment, opt for a manual toothbrush.
With the evidence we have available, it seems that the most eco-friendly toothbrushes are those which have a reusable handle and changeable heads.
For more information, see our guide on the most-eco friendly toothbrush options.
We also have a guide on how to make your dental health more eco-friendly.