Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” toothpaste, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
So you brush your teeth. Bravo! You’re taking the most important step in keeping your teeth healthy. What do you use on your toothbrush to keep those pearly whites pearly white? Some of us go with our dentists’ recommendations, some of us use the first thing we find with an agreeable taste or texture, and some of us analyze every ingredient, researching how they may be impacting our planet. If the latter is not you, you’re in the right place.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
Depending on your needs, there are a few different types of toothpaste you may choose from:
Fluoride compounds are to cavity prevention what blueberries are to blueberry pancakes. That is to say, they’re the distinguishing component. Fluoride strengthens teeth, prevents tooth decay, and remineralizes decaying tooth enamel. It is also famously the subject of a great debate, which we won’t get into here.
According to the American Dental Association, nearly 12% of dental patients experience hypersensitive teeth. Symptoms include sensitivity to touch, temperature, and air current. Desensitizing agents in sensitivity toothpastes help to block the microscopic holes in our teeth that lead to nerve endings.
Whitening toothpastes typically contain abrasives like microbeads that are harder on stains but less hard on enamel, and/or peroxides that help dissolve stains, and/or a chemical called blue covarine, which shifts the reflected color of teeth from yellow to blue (leading to a whiter appearance). When it comes to the environmental impacts of these whiteners, microbeads are by far the most worrisome. Microbeads are visible particles of plastic that are smaller than 5mm. Wastewater treatment facilities aren’t very good at capturing them, which means they often make their way into our waterways and break down into microplastics. In Istanbul, 871 million grams of microplastics are going down the drain annually from toothpaste alone. That’s the same weight as almost 80 school buses. It’s time we make moves to avoid all of that unnecessary microplastic waste.
Hydrogen peroxide on the other hand, you don’t have to worry about. We actually use hydrogen peroxide in wastewater treatment plants as a way to break down the (literal) crap people flush down the toilet. It’s widely regarded as the safest oxidant imaginable and is even lauded as “the ultimate ‘green’ reagent”. And while blue covarine may sound scary, it’s actually not. Wastewater treatment facilities should have no trouble picking up blue covarine based on its chemical structure, so its release into our waterways is unlikely. And as a bonus, it’s a pretty effective whitener.
Tartar buildup happens when plaque hardens on the teeth before being removed. It can cause tooth and gum decay and can only be removed by a dentist. The most effective way to manage tartar buildup is to have your teeth cleaned by a dentist at least once per year, but you can also opt to use tartar control toothpaste containing compounds that help prevent plaque buildup and solidification.
In 2020, the global toothpaste market was worth about $14.9 billion, and it’s estimated to grow to $19.5 billion by 2027. According to Colgate, that’s up to 20 billion tubes of toothpaste per year. Most of that toothpaste is washed down our drains, and the packaging sent to landfills.
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THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS for short) is an emulsifying cleaning agent found in all kinds of foaming products, from toothpaste to laundry detergent to shampoo. It also happens to be a highly toxic threat to aquatic life, such as algae, frogs, and fish. Some studies have considered that the toxicity of SLS depends upon certain factors, including how diluted the SLS is, what types of marine species are impacted, and what temperature and hardness the water is. However, the World Health Organization unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” That’s reason enough for us to steer clear. SLS is in roughly 46% of all toothpastes we’ve rated, so keep an eye out for it no matter what you’re buying.
Poloxamer 407 is used to mix different ingredients into those wacky bright blues and greens we associate with toothpaste. P407 is proven to cause hyperlipidemia in animals, which is the overproduction of fats in blood, which in turn creates an increased risk for heart attack or stroke. Super scary, and definitely not something we want to be washing down our drains. Steer clear of those neon colored toothpastes to avoid this one.
Cetylpyridinium Chloride, aka CPC, is found in all kinds of toothpastes, but is also used in the poultry processing industry to reduce microbes. Everything about the poultry processing industry is gross, including this chemical. It has been proven to cause reproductive disruptions and infertility in animals exposed to it. There are existing petitions that ask to have CPC added to the USDA National Organic Program’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, and Japan has even banned it from use in cosmetics.
Traditional toothpaste tubes are trash (ha-ha) when it comes to their recyclability and reusability. However, innovations are being made. Dr. Bronner's toothpaste cap, tube, and carton are all made out of recyclable materials including cardboard and HDPE. Davids comes in a recyclable metal tube, and Tom’s has a recycling partnership with Terracycle. But to us, the most compelling packaging innovation is the introduction of toothpaste tablets that don’t even require a tube. Humankind makes tablets that are stored in a reusable glass and silicone container and shipped in compostable paper pouches. Bite makes tablets that come in a glass bottle and have a 4.9 (out of 5) star review based on over 11,000 reviews. Traditional toothpaste is made up of about 20-40% water, which makes it heavy and increases fuel and energy needed in shipping and transportation. The tablet/bit format eliminates this unnecessary water weight and is much easier to store and ship in reusable containers. However, it’s more expensive than conventional toothpaste (costing about $.20 per use), and not everyone loves the texture.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS:
When we wash toothpaste down the drain, it usually first hits a water treatment facility that’s supposed to remove any harmful chemicals in the water. Unfortunately, a study of “cleaned” water coming directly from facilities showed SLS in every single sample across 47 samples taken in several countries. This means that when we’re spitting into the sink, some of the associated chemicals are getting into waterways where we find our aquatic friends. When it comes to toothpaste, our number one priority is protecting ourselves from gum disease, cavities, and anything else that will wind us up in our dentist’s chair unnecessarily. However, we can choose to avoid wasteful products and those that we know are harmful to aquatic life. Next time you’ve got to stock up on toothpaste, opt for those without SLS, P407, or CPC. Maybe even try toothpaste tablets if you can afford it and are feeling adventurous.