Minimalish: Misadventures in Zero Waste Dentistry

In the last couple of weeks I’ve covered fandom and the ethics of getting vaccinated, so let’s chill for a bit and talk about teeth. Okay, not teeth, teeth are strange. Let’s talk about dental products. I’ve been experimenting with zero waste products and I thought, since I like talking about minimalism and the planet, but I’m not living in a field with a compostable toilet and no electricity, I might offer a good ‘basic consumer’ perspective?

I should start with a couple of things. Firstly, I have a huge guilt complex about plastic and non-biodegradable waste. I mean, we all should, but I feel bad every time I chuck something in the regular bin that isn’t recyclable or might be recyclable in some areas if you say four prayers and leave an offering for the bin collectors. Anything that comes in non-plastic or reusable packaging piques my interest. So I really wanted solid toothpaste and aluminium-bottle mouthwash to work, but I’m aware that a lot of you would be less invested in their success than I was.

Secondly, I thought buying solid toothpaste, aluminium-bottle mouthwash and refillable, non-nylon dental floss would be cheaper than the regular stuff in the long run. It is not. Lots of zero waste toiletries do work out cheaper in the long term (my reusable cotton face pads, safety razor and solid soap have definitely saved me money) but alternative dental products are firstly more expensive than their mainstream counterparts and secondly seem smaller, so they don’t last as long. I am sort of regretting the cash I put down on some pieces, especially after I saw my dentist recently and he confirmed my suspicions that they are, um, not worth it. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start with something I do think is worth swapping!

Dental Floss

I’ve tried a couple of ‘alternative’ dental flosses. I’m currently using the Georganics charcoal dentil floss, made with corn and vegetable wax. I didn’t choose or pay for it initially, as it was a Christmas present, but I like it. It’s nicer to use than a different eco-friendly floss I tried last summer, which was made of corn and candelilla wax. It was uncoated, so it felt less like flossing and more like hauling twine through my teeth. I like the Georganics one though. It comes in a little refillable jar which is quite sweet (and very durable. I’ve dropped it a lot and it hasn’t smashed). I’ve bought refill and although it’s pricey, especially with postage, I think it might last longer than the usual stuff. I haven’t run the numbers though; in a pinch I’d switch back to the mainstream single use plastic versions, knowing that I’ve not bought them when I could.

Oil pulling mouthwash bottle, glass dental floss jar and solid toothpaste jar by Georganics, on a blue blanket.
Really should have photographed these before they got bathroom-y.

Toothpaste

My first foray into zero waste toothpaste was with tooth tabs, last summer. For the uninitiated, they’re little tablets that come in a refillable aluminium tin. They look like mints; their main ingredient is calcium carbonate. There is a slight issue with tooth tabs in that they work when activated by water: you pop one in your mouth, wet your toothbrush and scrub. It doesn’t froth or give you that zingy clean feeling, which on reflection I quite like, but I thought they were okay-ish… until my tin got damp and they all turned to sludge. A non-airtight tin sheltering water-activated products is a bit of a design flaw when that tin lives in a bathroom…

Solid toothpaste, which also uses calcium carbonate, seemed a better bet, so I tried some in January. It resembles toothpaste, right? Except… the first thing I thought of when I opened it was that it reminded me of concrete. It might not remind you of concrete, so don’t let that put you off. But we were not off to an auspicious start. Solid toothpaste works similarly to regular toothpaste: put a pea sized bit on your brush, wet the brush, scrubby scrubby. I thought it would slide out of the jar, like face cream or tube toothpaste, and onto your toothbrush. Maybe I’m doing it wrong (are you supposed to use a spoon?) but it has the consistency of solidified porridge. I sort of scraped it out of the jar and onto the toothbrush. It’s a bit messy, like plaster; I felt a bit like I was scrubbing my gums off.

I saw my dentist a couple of weeks ago and asked if it’s worth persevering with, given the plasteryness and lack of fluoride. Short answer: it isn’t. Apparently the relative amount of plastic in the standard toothpaste tube (which can be recycled in some places) isn’t really worth the swap given that eco-friendly toothpaste’s long term health benefits aren’t clear. Also, I had this crack in my tooth enamel or something, so I have to use fancy toothpaste for a while to stop my mouth exploding in pain every time I drink something cold. Even if I loved the solid toothpaste, toothache treatment has to come before the planet because I can’t do shit for the environment if my teeth have fallen out.

Mouthwash

I couldn’t get on with alternative mouthwash, but that was on me from the get go. I thought I was buying ‘normal’ mouthwash except in an aluminium bottle. It turned out to be ‘oil pulling mouthwash.’ Oil pulling, I have since learnt, is an alternative medicine. My opinions on alternative medicine can be summarised thus:

I made this! By myself! It’s from Tim Minchin’s Storm the Animated Movie, which is a nine minute beat poem about an atheist meeting a hippie at a dinner party.

You’re also supposed to swish for 20 minutes. I know there’s a pandemic on, but I don’t have 20 minutes to to swish. As I said, my dentist explained that there isn’t a lot of info around about long term impacts of these new organic/zero waste/alternative dental products, and he reckons in years to come, people might present with issues. Oil pulling is an ‘ancient practice,’ sure, but so is bloodletting. I’m too vain to risk the quality of my gnashers; the hassle around my braces alone has ensured a lifelong desire to keep these teeth as nice as possible. Also it turns out you can get regular (or more regular?) mouthwash in aluminium bottles, so I might give that a go when I have some extra cash.

In conclusion: continuing with one out of five potential products doesn’t sound great, but I’m glad I tried them all. I imagine their prices will come down as more sustainable brands enter supermarkets, and as the Colgates of the world improve their packaging. I do most of my eco-friendly shopping on Wearth, by the way, they’re a UK-based platform that offers carbon neutral delivery and, if you are so inclined, this referral link (this isn’t a sponsored post; I’m sharing the code from my personal account thing. It has something to do with points). Some of the brands Wearth stocks are selling products that you don’t need if you’re smart about your consumption, or use everyday products for multiple purposes (I don’t need a £23 refillable conditioner when I use olive oil on my hair like the financially-stretched Mediterranean grandma I’m evolving into), but they’re worth checking out. If you have the money to spend experimenting with zero waste toiletries, go for it. If you don’t, don’t feel bad: there are other things you can do to decrease your consumption.

Right, I need a cup of tea. I’m not sure what I’ll be discussing next week: I thought about writing something about Sarah Everard or the royals, but there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said more eloquently already. Both those topics are heavy, as well, and I’d like to keep it light for my own mental health. Maybe I’ll do a book post. We’ll see.

Look after yourselves!

Francesca


Here is the rest of the Minimalish series.

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