If you have a passion for looking after the environment, you may have noticed the dental industry can be a bit of a nemesis.
Traditional products are often single use and made of plastic.
In this post I’ll be looking at some of the ways you can reduce the impact of your dental health care, whilst still keeping your mouth healthy.
Unfortunately, we can’t name an individual product as best for the environment.
This is because it varies on so many different factors including your clinical need. And also because there is a lack of evidence at this time.
We can provide advice about what may have a worse impact on the environment, or less of an impact on the environment compared to other products. We can also provide guidance on what type of cleaning may be best for you.
You will need to think critically about whether a certain product meets your needs and if it is as environmentally friendly as it suggests. Watch out for misleading claims, and call out companies who could be doing better.
But you should always consult with your dental professional for advice tailored to your needs.
The best thing you can do is improve your dental health to avoid needing dental treatment. Dental treatments have a large impact on the environment.
Do the basics well and avoid unnecessary products. Use any products you do already have to the maximum and dispose of them responsibly before choosing your next dental hygiene tool.
You might need to compromise between sustainability and good oral health
It’s great to reduce waste where you can, but some waste is unavoidable. You need to strike a balance between looking after your teeth and reducing your waste.
Protecting the environment is important, especially with the current climate emergency declared by the United Nations.
Reducing waste is important. This is because it reduces our reliance on using up new resources. It also reduces the energy demand for disposing of unwanted products (via recycling or otherwise).
But view your dental health as just that. It is part of your health and so dental hygiene should be viewed as healthcare. This differs from some other personal hygiene habits (for example, hair conditioner) where not following them will not will not result in you needing a medical intervention.
Waste free options for dental products include reusing packaging at home for other purposes, a circular economy (e.g. refillable pots), recycling of waste or using compostable materials.
But it is important to recognize that not everything can be 100% waste free. Accept that there may be some unavoidable waste and that this should be seen as medical waste. This small amount of waste for prevention is significantly less than what would be produced if you needed dental treatment.
Science is still developing and in the future this may be possible. But some element of waste is unavoidable with what we have available today.
Yes, you want to reduce the impact your home dental hygiene has on the environment. But you shouldn’t sacrifice your health in the bid to go “zero waste”.
You may need to compromise in the short term.
What you do have the power to do is choose the tools that are most effective and which can be useful for as long as possible.
An example of this compromise in dental health is interdental cleaning. Interdental cleaning has benefits for your mouth and your body.
Floss and interdental brushes are hard to make from a material which will be recyclable or which will be compostable at the end of its useful life.
You can pick those which are made from sustainable renewable resources. And choose something which produces minimal waste. But finding a zero waste option simply isn’t possible.
But the consequences of not doing it can have an even greater effect on the environment. For example, if you need a filling or gum treatment.
You want to pick the most effective type of cleaner – one that is good at preventing and managing disease, whilst also considering your own risk of disease.
Whilst there is a small amount of waste, this is not as much as having clinical treatment, and is a compromise you will need to make.
With an increasing desire to reduce the impact on the environment, some people are now developing anxiety about the waste they produce. The best thing for the environment is lots of people doing things imperfectly, rather than a few people doing things perfectly.
In the meantime, lobby the brands you use to improve their sustainability practices.
Preventing treatments is the best thing you can do
There is plenty of evidence discussing the negative impact that dental appointments have on the environment.
Check ups create less waste than procedures.
But, consider the fact that for each dental appointment you have, there is an impact on the planet.
This is because of your travel to and from the appointment, the use of single use packaging to sterilize instruments, and the clean surfaces. Then there are the materials needed for your treatment, such as local anaesthetic (for numbing) and filling materials.
Dentistry is resource intensive and produces large amounts of waste.
So the best thing you can do for the environment is avoid needing treatment.
Good oral hygiene is required to maintain good oral health. Learning and sticking to the dental basics will minimize your impact on the environment. You can see the Electric Teeth guide to good oral health here, and we summarize the steps to take in the video below:
In fact, this is supported by FDI (the World Dental Federation). They state: healthier mouths require fewer appointments.
Dental health can also have a direct impact on the rest of your body. There are some surprising benefits of flossing, including for your heart health and in managing other conditions such as diabetes.
By starting with your dental and oral health, you can look after your whole body and prevent the need for medical treatments.
Look after your teeth to look after the planet.
Choose the right dental products for your personal situation
To do this in an environmentally aware way use what you need, but no more:
- Toothbrush – brush for two minutes twice a day.
- Toothpaste – use a fluoride containing toothpaste for prevention against tooth decay.
- Interdental cleaning aid to remove plaque between the teeth.
Choose the best products for you and your personal situation.
Avoid unnecessary gadgets and gimmicks which aren’t actually beneficial.
We recommend some products to choose from below, but it’s also good to have a conversation with your dental care professional.
Manage the amount of water you use
A simple step you can do to lessen your impact on the environment is to reduce the amount of water you use.
Leaving the faucet on whilst brushing your teeth wastes a lot of water.
In fact, 64 cups of water are wasted each time you brush your teeth if the water is left running.
A 2019 study of Environmental Impacts Of Healthcare And Pharmaceutical Products found that the biggest environmental impact from toothpaste comes from having the faucet running whilst brushing your teeth.
For comparison, making and packaging toothpaste consumes an average of 0.36 kg CO2. Then, if it is used whilst running the warm water tap, energy consumption is 3.65 kg CO2. Use and disposal with minimal water usage is 0.09 kg CO2. (These are UK based figures.)
So yes, choosing a paste with less packaging may have some benefit when it comes to carbon footprint. But this effect is minimal in comparison to the habits whilst using toothpaste.
WaterSense, an organisation which partners with the US Environmental Protection Agency, lists why saving water is beneficial, including for the environment and for you financially.
Think about the materials used in your products
To make your dental health more eco-friendly one of the main things you should think about is what your product is made from.
You should consider both the packaging and the product itself.
There is no simple answer to what is best, but there are options for you to investigate.
Plastics may be unavoidable in some circumstances (with the current resources we have). One such example is toothbrush bristles (unless opting for animal hair versions).
When choosing plastic materials, opt for bio-based plastics over plastics made from conventional fossil-fuel sources. Bio-based plastics use a renewable source for the material. You will still need to consider what to do with them at the end of their useful lives, but many plastics can be recycled in some way.
Another option for materials is using organic matter such as wood. Bamboo is becoming a popular option for toothbrush handles. Again, these are renewable resources. They may be compostable when you are finished with them.
Metals also have a place in dental products, for example as brush handles. One benefit of metals is the ease of recycling and the fact that the recycled material can easily be used again.
Whatever material you choose, you will want to investigate how sustainable the material is.
Being renewable is one thing. That just means that the used material can be quickly replaced or regrown.
But the renewable material also needs to be sustainable long term, and not require destruction of other habitats. Manufacturers don’t always make this information easily available. Looking for independent certification of sustainability, such as International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) or The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) is one way you can be sure the materials are more sustainable.
Depending on your ethical standpoint, you also have the choice to avoid animal-based products and those that test on animals. Commonly found animal based materials in dentistry include boar hair bristles in toothbrushes, silk for floss, or ingredients such as propolis in toothpastes.
Animal derived products mostly pose an ethical question.
But this is also relevant to the environment. There is no direct evidence to compare animal based materials versus synthetically made materials when it comes to the impact on the environment. There are environmental impact assessments of some individual materials, but not much direct comparison. It is generally accepted that raising animals is resource intensive and has a negative effect on the environment.
Whilst no process is perfect, you have some choices to consider in order that the dental products you use have the lowest impact on the environment as possible.
The products we recommend below take the above factors into account.
Consider where your products are made and delivered from
Transport is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, and something to consider when you are choosing which dental products are the best for you.
One thing to consider is how far has your product travelled to get to you. Was it made in the same country as you, or has it been transported halfway around the world?
Locally grown materials and locally made products often have a lower carbon footprint than imported products. Although this may not be true if they require artificial growing environments.
And it’s not just how far has that product travelled, but how did it get to you? Shipping, air transport, and land transport all have variable impacts on the environment. Some methods of transport release fewer emissions than others.
Some companies will also off-set any emissions from transportation. This comes with its own complications, but it is a more positive action than a company that does nothing at all.
It might be that a locally made product is better than an internationally shipped product. You need to do your research.
Think about what to do with a product at the end of its useful life
When you are finished with the product you are using, what happens next? This is one key element that can change how environmentally friendly your dental health is.
In a perfect world, there would be no waste after you are finished with something.
Reduce your waste by not using unnecessary products which generate unnecessary waste.
For products you need to use, it is best to use a product for as long as possible and then repurpose it when it is no longer useful.
Recycling is the final option for products that cannot be used. Composted materials leave behind a useful substance – compost, which can then be used elsewhere. Recycling produces another useful material (e.g. glass, aluminium or plastic).
When it comes to dental products, things you need to think about include:
- Product packaging.
- Used toothbrushes (handles, heads and bristles).
- Used floss and interdental brushes.
- Empty containers for toothpaste and mouthwashes.
Minimising packaging, and using products that are refillable are steps that you can take to minimize the overall waste.
Where you cannot avoid waste, try to choose compostable materials where possible (not biodegradable, which can lead to small amounts of plastic in the soil).
Another option is recycling your waste. Beware that the term recyclable is not protected in law and so can be used incorrectly on packaging and products.
Recycling is particularly difficult with dental products because of the types of materials used and that more than one material is often used together. The useability of the recycled material also varies.Recycling technology is gradually improving. Where conventional household collections do not accept waste, other companies are stepping in. For example the Terracycle schemes sponsored by big brands such as Colgate. In some cases, individual companies operate their own returns policy, e.g. Georganics Zero To Landfill policy.
For more information on specific recycling, see our posts:
- How to recycle and electric toothbrush
- How to recycle a manual toothbrush and other products
- Can you recycle electric toothbrush heads?
- What is the situation with toothbrush bristles when it comes to recycling?
- Can you recycle toothpaste tubes?
Avoid unnecessary fad products
Making sure you have good oral hygiene is key to avoiding dental treatment and therefore protecting the environment.
Despite this, don’t be tricked into spending money on unnecessary products.
Items which promise you better oral hygiene but don’t deliver results will only end up in landfill, adding to the environmental burden.
At Electric Teeth, we have investigated a number of products which don’t live up to the promised standard, and we urge you to avoid buying them. For example:
Whitening toothpastes should be bought with caution, as most of them will only remove surface stains and not whiten the overall color of your teeth (as explained in our article on whitening toothpastes).
Mouthwashes are also unnecessary for all but a very few cases. You can find out more about that below.
Technology is not a replacement or a shortcut for proper dental hygiene – spend the time that is required to brush and floss your teeth. It will save you money and help the planet.
Use up the products you already have before switching to eco-friendly alternatives
The most environmentally friendly thing you can do is use up the products you already have. Make full use of them and dispose of them correctly.
It’s counterproductive to throw away a product you already have to switch to an eco-friendly alternative.
Whilst finishing those off, use the guides below to find the best products for you when you need a replacement.
Make the right choice between an electric and manual toothbrush
Manual toothbrushes have a lesser impact on the environment than electric toothbrushes.
And I would agree that a manual toothbrush is more eco-friendly for someone at low risk of dental problems.
If using a manual brush, discuss this with your dental professional who can make sure you have the best technique.
Plaque disclosing tablets can also help perfect your cleaning technique as they dye where plaque is attached to the teeth.
What is clear is that anyone who is at high risk of gum disease or tooth decay needs to make effective cleaning their number one priority. And this normally comes from using an electric toothbrush.
The evidence shows an electric toothbrush is better at cleaning and therefore reducing your risk of developing dental diseases.
Preventing diseases so that you do not need dental treatment is probably the best way to reduce your impact on the environment.
It’s worth noting that there is evidence about the impact that dental practices have on the environment, but only a small amount of research into the impact of toothbrushes and other hygiene recommendations. There is minimal research to directly compare them. We will keep you updated as more evidence emerges.
The only available research is by Duane et al in the British Dental Journal, which did consider which was better taking into account potential benefits. They considered recycled plastic handle manual brushes may be better.
But this is incredibly challenging to put a number to. There are simply too many variations in manufacturing, materials used, and transportation.
Again, the researchers explain that it is not just as simple as measuring carbon output. Consideration also needs to be given to the complex ways a product can have impact on someone’s health based on its environmental impact from manufacture, use and disposal. There are many variables.
See this advice if choosing a manual toothbrush
Unless you are at high risk of dental diseases, a manual toothbrush is a more environmentally friendly option for a toothbrush than an electric brush.
Our guide here runs through the most eco-friendly toothbrush options.
When considering which toothbrush material has the lowest impact, an assessment called a life cycle assessment can be done.
Duane et al did this for toothbrushes and found the brush with the lowest impact is made from recycled plastic, with replaceable heads. Their study only looked at a relatively small sample of brushes, and compared a traditional plastic and electric toothbrush, as well as a plastic manual toothbrush with replaceable heads and a bamboo manual toothbrush.
There are some other viable alternatives which were not assessed in this study. Other brushes available include bamboo handles with replaceable heads and metal handles with replaceable heads.
In any case, a toothbrush where only the head is disposed of rather than the whole brush is going to produce less waste and require fewer new materials each time. The precise material of that handle is up to you.
Consider environmentally friendly toothpaste options
Our guide on the best eco-friendly toothpaste discusses this topic in more detail, but a briefer summary is included below.
Toothpaste can be a potential challenge for the environment for a few different reasons.
There is no evidence comparing the environmental impact of different toothpaste options, but we will update our content when they become available.
One of the biggest environmental problems with toothpaste is that it is normally full of water. The addition of water to the mix is actually energy consuming in itself.
The water also makes the paste heavy and bulkier to transport, using more energy for delivery of the product. This can be overcome by opting for toothpaste tablets or powders rather than pastes. Although these come with a change in consistency which can take some getting used to.
Another challenge for toothpaste is the packaging it comes in. Traditional tubes are single use. Yet a standard tube of paste lasts only weeks or a couple of months. The standard way of making a toothpaste tube is with multiple materials, making them difficult to effectively recycle. Some brands are now designing “recyclable” tubes but you will need to compare this to your local recycling facilities to see if this is actually true. I go into this in more detail in our article on recycling toothpaste tubes.
Reduce the waste produced by choosing refillable containers. This circular economy may include topping up from bulk containers in shops, or returning your empty jars for a new full one. These are more common for toothpaste tablets, and are the most environmentally friendly option. If this isn’t an option, the next best thing is to recycle any tubes or other packaging after use. Traditional tubes are difficult to recycle, although schemes such as Terracycle will accept them. Some retailers also accept tubes which are returned to them.
You should make efficient use of your toothpaste by following the instructions. Don’t use excessive toothpaste. Did you know that you only need a pea sized amount for an adult. This is a far cry from the smears of paste shown in adverts! You can estimate how long your supply should last using this handy calculator.
Another consideration is the ingredients used in your toothpaste. Certain ingredients are required for the toothpaste to have any benefit, such as fluoride. But others don’t have a role to play. For example, food dyes and microplastic beads.
Microplastic beads can have a significant negative effect on the environment. The use of microplastic beads in cosmetics is banned in the USA, but toothpastes imported from other countries could still have them.
Toothpastes might also mislead you in their function. Whitening toothpastes will remove stains, but will not normally change the entire tooth color.
In the US, some over the counter pastes do whiten so could be an alternative to professional whitening treatments. But check ingredients to be sure that the toothpaste will give you the results that you are looking for.
Avoid wasting money on these products which will only end up in the bin when you don’t get the results you were expecting.
If you want to reduce your impact on the environment, one thing you can do is stop using mouthwashes.
For most people there is no need to use a mouthwash on a daily basis.
The key to healthy teeth and gums is the physical removal of plaque, and the protection of teeth with fluoride. This is achieved with tooth brushing twice daily and the use of interdental cleaning aids.
Mouthwash does not aid in the physical removal of plaque. And for most people, two applications of fluoride in toothpaste is sufficient. In fact, unless plaque is removed, mouthwash only has a minimal reach to the teeth.
When using mouthwash immediately after brushing, you are removing the useful toothpaste.
Mouthwash just doesn’t add anything to your cleaning routine.
Mouthwash can also cause irritation of the mouth.
So most people can remove mouthwash from their oral care routine, and save on the packaging and waste from production.
I will caveat this to say that in some cases, short term use of mouthwash has been proven to be beneficial. Specific mouthwashes can help with tooth sensitivity (see my article on the best mouthwash for sensitive teeth) and with ulcers (see our recommendations for mouthwashes for ulcers). In particular antimicrobial mouthwashes are used short term to help manage oral infections, and some rinses can help with gum disease.
But again, most people do not need a mouthwash.
Some people may choose to use one for a fresh taste, or to get an extra dose of fluoride during the day. If this is the case, use them at a different time to brushing.
You could try mouthwash tablets, powder or concentrates to reduce the waste produced if you really still want to use mouthwash.
Choose the best interdental cleaning tools
Interdental cleaning is the process of cleaning between the teeth in addition to traditional toothbrushing. No doubt your dentist has recommended more regular flossing.
Actually, the American Dental Association considers it to be an essential part of your cleaning regime
And that is because interdental cleaning has benefits for both your mouth and your body.
The challenge comes in finding an eco-friendly way to clean between the teeth. At present there is not much evidence available discussing the life cycle of different interdental cleaners.
Some compromise will be necessary. At the time of writing there isn’t a truly zero waste option for cleaning between the teeth.
But the consequences of not doing it can have an even greater effect on the environment. For example, if you need a filling or gum treatment.
When comparing the available tools, interdental brushes are the most effective way of cleaning (better than both floss and water flossers, as I explain in my post interdental brushes vs floss vs water flossers).
If you have healthy gums and teeth, and a good technique, floss may be sufficient.
If you have active gum disease or cannot use floss effectively, you should prioritize your dental health and use interdental brushes instead.
Some things to consider when picking an interdental cleaning tool with the environment in mind:
- The packaging that your tool comes in, and whether it is refillable or recyclable.
- The use of energy and water when using a water flosser (but that there is no single use plastic outside of the original purchase).
- Floss is single use per stretch of floss.
- Traditionally floss is made up of nylon from fossil fuel sources and is not compostable.
- Alternative materials can be used for floss. These may come from renewable resources to make bio-based plastics, but pose the same issues with breakdown. Compostable materials are normally made from silk and are not suitable for vegans.
- Avoid single use flossing tools which come with plastic handles. Reusable handle alternatives are available.
- Interdental brushes can be used more than once.
- Interdental brushes use multiple materials and are difficult to break down for recycling. Handles can be made from bio-based plastics or compostable materials. Bristles are normally nylon, but again can be made from bio-based plastics.
For a full discussion, see my post on the best zero waste floss options.
Opt for a reusable tongue scraper
First of all, not everybody needs to regularly clean their tongue. But it is particularly beneficial for people who suffer from bad breath, or build ups on the tongue.
For people who do clean their tongues, a specific tongue cleaner may not even be something that is needed. Certainly don’t go buying one unless you have discussed it with a dental professional. Otherwise you are simply buying unnecessary tools which will end up in the bin when you don’t use them.
If you do need to use a tongue cleaner, you might find that a toothbrush will suffice. That is a good situation because you don’t need to buy another tool and create more waste.
If you need an additional cleaner for your tongue, buy something that is reusable. Metal options generally tend to last longer and are easier to recycle.
Keep an eye out for greenwashing
Shopping for environmentally friendly products can be a bit of a minefield.
There are the questions about which options are genuinely better for the environment. And there is not always a simple answer.
But there is an added layer of difficulty whereby some terms are not protected or might not mean what you think they mean. Companies may use these to try to get you to choose their product over somebody else’s, when in actual fact there is no benefit to that particular product.
This process is called greenwashing.
Some key things to look out for:
|Claim||Why it’s a problem|
|Recyclable||“Recyclable” is not regulatedVaries depending on your location and who collects your wasteThe material may not be useable after recycling process|
|Biodegradable||The term isn’t regulated.This is simply the process of breaking down into smaller pieces. In theory, almost all materials are biodegradable. It’s just that some things can take a very long term (hundreds, or even thousands of years).|
|Compostable||Products can undergo independent testing to prove they are compostable.Compostable may mean home or industrial composting, and you need to check the label to see which one applies.Compostable materials break down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water, with the biomass being beneficial to the soil.|
|Plant-based (bio-based)||Plant-based plastics still pose the same difficulties in recycling and degrading. The difference only comes from the fact that they are made from a renewable (plant-based) resource.|
For each of these terms, you can find out more information on our definitions & terminology page.
Beware of misleading ads
In their bid to gain attention, some companies also place misleading adverts. They use the term eco-friendly or environmentally friendly without saying how or why that is the case.
Again, this greenwashing is trying to get consumers to spend money on their products without actually changing their practices to benefit the environment.
Marketing can be tailored, especially online, so that products are shown to you, even if they don’t meet your criteria. One such example would be this ad we encountered during research which suggests the Oral-B iO electric toothbrush is eco-friendly.
This may well be caused by the automatic generation of advert titles, but it is a good example of why you must think critically about products and not take all claims at face value.
Why we can’t recommend a single ‘best product’
We are weary of promoting any one product as the single most eco-friendly option.
Studies in this field are limited, and the situation is constantly evolving.
To give an example: the Duane et al study published in September 2020 on the most sustainable type of toothbrush found that a plastic toothbrush handle with replaceable heads was the least harmful to the environment in 11 categories.
However, the study did not include bioplastics, which is an emerging alternative to normal plastic. They also did not include metal or bamboo handles with replaceable heads.
We are not sustainability nor plastics experts. We are not in a position to judge how sustainable bioplastic is compared to normal plastic, so we await studies to guide us on this.
In some cases it is possible to give broad advice.
But, neither dentistry nor sustainability is “a one recommendation fits all” topic. There are many complicating factors that make one choice the best for one person, but not for another.
For example, a manual toothbrush uses fewer materials and creates less waste than an electric toothbrush.
However, to say definitively whether a bamboo or bioplastic handle (with or without a replaceable head) is more eco-friendly, is difficult.
Also, whilst an electric toothbrush has a greater impact on the environment, it is still recommended for high risk patients because of their clinical needs.
Sustainability is a topic that we are dedicated to understanding and promoting. We will continue to monitor the situation and report technological advancements within dentistry as accurately as possible, consulting experts wherever possible.
We will continue to review products for their functionality, and be led by science in terms of reporting on those that are effective for cleaning and which have the least impact on the environment.
Even though we cannot give definitive answers to “what is the most eco-friendly option”, we will provide you with information and guidance to help you pick the best product for yourself in your circumstances.