Is your toothpaste doing you and the planet harm?
For our third and final instalment in our Oral Care series, let's take a deep dive into Toothpaste itself. Toothpaste is a hum drum, benign piece of our lives which we use once or twice a day and really don't think about often, true? But when you think about it, the toothpaste we use is a big part of our health care routine!
Toothpaste occupies a nebulous space in the personal care world. You don't eat it, so it's not a food. And it's not (usually) prescribed by a doctor or dentist, so it doesn't fit in as a drug. For that reason, toothpaste escapes scrutiny even more so than most personal care products. So, since it is likely that there is no one ensuring you are using the safest made products, you need to arm yourself with the knowledge required to make these decisions on your own. After all, it is going in your mouth, where the membrane located under the tongue (the same route as used with sublingual tinctures) is one of the most efficient in the body when it comes to absorption.
But it goes way beyond that! There is concern not only about the toothpaste, but about the tubes it comes in. A great many are plastic and wind up in our landfills and oceans every year. They are incredibly difficult and confusing to recycle as well.
For what little we think about it, Toothpaste is a big part of our and our planets health. Hopefully, in this article, we can shed some light onto some of these topics and help you make more informed decisions about this consumer staple.
The Scope of the Problem
Think about it. How long does it take you to go through a tube of toothpaste? How long does it take for a family of four? What happens to these tubes when you are done with them?
"About 1 billion toothpaste tubes are sent to landfills every year. Toothpaste tubes are generally made of with aluminum or plastic. The process of converting raw bauxite (the source of aluminum that makes up 8 percent of the earth's crust) into aluminum is an energy-consuming one, requiring roughly 7.5 kilowatt hours for each pound of virgin aluminum. Plastic is not biodegradable, taking up to 700 years before beginning to decompose." (Holly Royce, 1MillionWomen.com)
Now, that's a lot of wasted toothpaste tubes! It's also a lot of toothpaste used. People who argue that there is not enough of any one harmful ingredient to pose a problem contained in these products. And to a certain point of view, maybe. One tube of toothpaste may be completely benign to you. However, the average person is using this item twice a day, every day of their lives. The proponents will not address cumulative exposure over a lifetime, nor do they want you to think of it in this way.
Our opinion is simple, if it has been proven to be harmful, or linked to harm, in ANY amount, you shouldn't put it into your body! Pencil lead is poisonous and harmful, true. And chewing on one pencil and accidentally swallowing one piece does not mutate or permanently harm your child (we believe). But if they did this every day of their school career, eventually it would add up over time, and there would be effects, true? Same principal. Lets take a brief look at some of these ingredients.
Toxic Chemicals Found in Toothpaste
Triclosan - You can find this chemical in so many different personal care products. It is a highly effective anti-bacterial agent which, when used in toothpaste, can help prevent gingivitis and gum disease. However, there are trade-offs. Triclosan has been shown to cause resistance to antibiotics and Endocrine System disruption. Endocrine disruption contributes to hormonal imbalances that lead to health issues such as certain cancers, irregular girls puberty, low birth weights, and testicular problems for boys.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) - This chemical is a surfactant, which is responsible for the foaming action in toothpastes. Versions of these chemicals include SLS itself, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES), or Sodium Laureth Sulfate. It has been linked to possibly affecting our taste buds, by breaking lipids on our tongues. This is theorized to be the reason why things may taste bitter after brushing. It also has a relation to skin irritation and canker sores.
Artificial Sweeteners, Flavors, & Colors - Unlike with natural ingredients, artificial ingredients are engineered to simulate things which we sense. Our bodies generally do not possess the ability to process many of these materials. If they do not pass through the body, they may interact and form hazardous compounds that can affect the body. For example, the artificial sweetener Aspartame, through a series of chemical actions, forms Methanol that the body can not process. In the brain, Methanol forms formaldehyde and can damage brain tissues causing headaches, dizziness, nausea, vertigo, numbness, etc.
Fluoride - Fluoride is used in dentistry to help protect the enamel of teeth and prevent tooth decay. It's reputation in this is so great, that it is added to many other sources, such as public water supplies. The use of fluoride sporadically, as in brushing, may not cause long term harm. But, since many of us are drinking it daily, and children are likely to swallow it, fluoride can build up in tissue and becomes toxic in volume. It destroys enzymes and neurological and endocrine issues.
Propylene Glycol - A mineral oil which is used in many consumer products because it absorbs water, including paints, anti-freeze, and deicers. In toothpaste, it functions as a surfactant (like in #2, helps with the foaming action of the product). It can possibly cause eye, skin, and lung irritation, and is toxic to human organs.
Diethanolamine (DEA) - This chemical is a known hormone disruptor. It can react to form N-nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), a carcinogen. This chemical has scored 10 out of 10 as a toxic substance in cosmetics by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Microbeads - Essentially these are small (<5 microns) pieces of plastic designed to carry chemicals and other substances in the product. Being plastic, they do not bio-degrade and wind up being washed into the wastewater system, where they are too small to be filtered out, and ultimately end up in the groundwater supplies and oceans. There, they accumulate and infect the food supply, eventually finding there way into larger and larger animals, including humans, where they cause health problems.
Now Let's Look at some Sample Labels
Please Note, we are purposely leaving out the Brand Names, and some pictures have been enhanced to make them easier to read and remove identifying information.
XYZ Popular Brand, Cool Mint Flavor with "Whitening Breath Strips."
Potentially questionable ingredients:
Sodium Fluoride (Active)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
PEG 12 (Polyethylene Glycol)
Flavor (this is a generic industry term that refers to a combination of chemicals used for that purpose, and the manufacturer is not required to list ach individual component)
Sodium Saccharin (an artificial sweetener)
Methylcellulose (a laxative used to treat constipation)
Titanium Dioxide (used as a pigmentation enhancer in many products)
FD&C Blue no. 1 (artificial colorant)
2. Another Popular Brands product, Herbal Mint flavor with Hemp Seed Oil.
A large number of companies are jumping onto the "Hemp" bandwagon and marketing new products containing HSO, CBD, and other "natural" ingredients. But just because it has one good ingredient, does not make the entire formula safe.
Potentially Questionable ingredients:
Sodium Fluoride (Active)
PEG 12 (Polyethylene Glycol)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Flavor (see above)
Sodium Saccharin (see above)
Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate (see above)
Cocamidopropyl Betaine (see above)
3. A less mainstream "Natural" Brand's product, Spearmint Flavored with Hemp Seed Oil
In response to the shocking lack of choices for non-artificial products in the Oral care space, a number of smaller companies have come along to try and fill the demand.
Even though most of these ingredients are perfectly benign and natural, there are still a couple of ingredients common to toothpastes that are present:
Flavor (? see above)
Titanium Dioxide (see above)
Cocamidopropyl Betaine (see above)
4. CBDDent, a brand that makes a Fluoride Free, Mint flavored product with CBD & CBG
Smaller, more carefully formulated natural products are entering the market almost daily. (in the interest of full disclosure, this is a Brand we carry in the store).
All of these ingredients are derived from natural sources, and these ingredients are just as effective as the artificial ones found in the above products.
Let's Talk about Tubes
As we mentioned above, nearly a billion toothpaste tubes make their way into the waste stream yearly. But, are they recyclable? The short answer, yes.
But realize that it is tricky, and may take a little effort. Of course, nobody said that protecting the environment wouldn't. Toothpaste tubes can come in a wide variety of materials, from conventional plastics to aluminum or nylon. This wide variety of materials makes recycling te tubes a challenge. Essentially, they must be separated by type before recycling.
Few municipal recycling programs across the country accept tubes, mostly for this reason. Please check with your local waste collection division to find out for sure, and if there are any additional requirements.
The one factor that leads many to believe they are not recyclable is what to do about the sticky toothpaste residue leftover inside the tube. There are two ways of dealing with this. The first is that the recycler will usually machine shred the materials and then chemically "clean" them of biological and organic material before melting and processing the material.
The second is more "Hands On." If your municipal program or wherever you recycle them requires you turn in a "clean" product, then follow the following steps:
Using a small flat edged device, squeeze as much of the leftover paste from the tube as possible. (There are purpose made tube-squeezers you can purchase to make sure you are using all the toothpaste you can in a tube).
Using Scissors, Cut the neck (top) off the tube and cut a slit down one side of the tube.
(Opt.) Soak the exposed tube in warm soapy water with a cleaning solution for a day or two.
Clean out the remaining paste from inside of the tube with warm water and so.
Dry the tube and now they are ready to be recycled.
Once you've verified the material, you can use this Recycling Search (From Earth911) to locate a place to recycle them. You can also locate a charitable recycling program through this website, a partnership between TerraCycle and Colgate.
So what are my options?
Within the world of Oral Care products, it may seem that there are limited ways available to correct for some of the problems we have covered, but there are still options.
1. To minimize your exposure to potential toxins:
READ THE LABELS. This one we cannot stress enough. Don't just rely on blind trust, but take responsibility and know what you are putting into your body. If you are unsure about an ingredient, look it up. The internet has all the information you require. If you are uncomfortable with what you find, try another product until you are.
Take claims like "Organic" and "All-Natural Ingredients" with a grain of salt. Investigate these claims and check the bona fides of any organization which claims to "certify" these products with the labels. Remember, this space in this industry is shockingly underregulated, so it is not that difficult for a manufacturer to affix these claims to their product without a regulator scrutinizing it.
Shop Small. Smaller brands and local artisan brands have a tendency to make products using all natural ingredients and avoid industrial chemicals. Some f their products may be a little more costly than big box brands, and it is up to the consumer to decide if their health is worth this premium. Not to mention, you are helping the merchant make a living and feed his/her family.
Make your own. Certainly the most involved method. It will require you to research and experiment with ingredients and flavors until you can settle upon a recipe that is suitable to you. There are hundreds available on the internet you can use as starting points. The advantage of putting in this work is that you can be CERTAIN what ingredients are in your toothpaste, and you can make it taste exactly how you want.
Look for alternatives to traditional toothpastes. Big box brands tend to follow a fairly rigid formula with their products. Even when they are trying to market to a "healthier, more natural" demographic, they stick with a lot of the same questionable ingredients (for ex. #1 to #2 above is from the same manufacturer). There are emerging new brands that are taking shelf space and gaining popularity amongst consumers. One example is a toothpaste made from Bamboo by WooBamboo.
2. To help with the Environment:
Use an alternative form of toothpaste. Many new products are being introduced in the marketplace now that replace traditional toothpaste. One good example is toothpaste Tabs. A form of paste which comes in tablets, which you chew to form the paste, and then brush or rinse vigorously to use. They generally come in biodegradable or recyclable packaging and are much cleaner to recycle than traditional toothpaste tubes.
Shop with an eye on the packaging materials. Some tubes are now being made of bioplastics which are biodegradable and have little impact on the environment after they decay, unlike traditional plastic tubes. Also, you may be aware of a recycling program which accepts certain types of materials. Make sure the packaging is Earth-Friendly or you can easily recycle it.
Find alternate materials. Similar to above, products which are made from other materials can be more eco-friendly. This may apply more to other Oral Care products, such as Dental Floss made from silk vice nylon thread, and Bamboo Toothbrushes instead of traditional plastic handled brushes.
Make your own. Yes, again. Aside from the control of making it and health advantages, you also have control over what type of packaging you use to put the finished product in. Many home apothecarists use glass jars, which are both recyclable and can be cleaned and reused, You can also purchase biodegradable containers.
Perhaps someday, consumer demand will force these Big Brand manufacturers to change their formulas and use safer, more natural ingredients. But until then, it is up to all of us that are aware to educate and spread the word amongst our families and friends. But most of all, take personal responsibility for your own health and study and learn the ways that what you are putting into or onto yourself is affecting you, long and short term.
"What are your thoughts? Tell us below!"
Why I quit toothpaste; by Holly Royce, 14 April 2015
Recycling Mystery: Toothbrushes & Toothpaste Tubes; by Mary Mazzoni Oct. 31, 2018
The environmental impact of toothpaste; MAY 30, 2007, by MICHAEL BLOCH
7 List of Harmful Chemicals in Toothpaste – Ingredients; by akbarss, July 3, 2017
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