Why toothpaste packaging is bad for the planet according to an ecotoxicologist

Plastic Free July is in full swing but it can be very hard to achieve a full month without plastic says columnist Kirsty-Jo Muddiman.

Monday, 15th July 2019, 12:28 pm
Updated Monday, 15th July 2019, 12:41 pm
Generic image of toothpaste.

It’s week two of “Plastic-free July” so perhaps you are considering trickier swaps.

Decisions on what single use plastic you can decide to live without are made on cost, the benefit to the environment and weighing up the ethics of the swap.

Should we also consider the potential impact on our health?

In Europe, toothpaste is regulated as a cosmetic and so it’s relatively easy to develop and sell a toothpaste in zero-waste packaging.

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We put toothpaste in our mouths and in the mouths of our children every day, so take a moment to consider your toothpaste choice.

Fluoride in toothpaste is deemed safe in the EU, beneficial even, but it has been questioned in terms of safety in the past.

Water in Doncaster does not appear to be artificially fluoridated (from 2018 data) and natural fluoride levels in our water are generally low.

Fluoride can prevent tooth decay and cavities so the decision on whether you want fluoride in your toothpaste is probably the most important one, and both traditional products and zero-waste products offer with and without.

Every toothpaste placed on the market in the EU should be have been assessed in terms of risk to human health but the beneficial effects, or efficacy, of toothpaste is not specifically regulated.

The Oral Health Foundation can award the “smiley face” logo to products where claims have been clinically proven but this does cost the manufacturer money- something a small independent producer may not be in a position to do.

The British Dental Association (BDA) do not approve any specific products, to maintain independence but Professor Damien Walmsley, Chief Scientific Advisor, says: “We do recommend that people brush their teeth twice daily (before bed time and on one other occasion) with a toothpaste containing fluoride.

“Fluoride helps make teeth more resistant to tooth decay and remineralises tooth enamel in the early stages of tooth decay.”

He continued: “There is a problem with fake news in dentistry such as charcoal in toothpaste which has become popular as a home whitening agent.

“There is no evidence that this works and as it’s abrasive it can damage the enamel on teeth over time.”

Professor Walmsley said: “it’s not just about toothpastes, the British Dental Association (BDA) is committed to understanding and leading on sustainability.”

Professor Walmsley points out that bamboo and bioplastic toothbrushes are available as an alternative to plastic brushes.

The big companies are the ones who can afford to put accreditations on their products, and they have the budget to thoroughly test safety and efficacy.

If a small producer can bring a zero-waste product to market, then surely the big brands can bring us zero-waste toothpaste soon.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) produce Sensodyne and Aquafresh toothpaste.

Whilst they “share public concern about the environmental impact from excessive use of plastic packaging” they believe their products “play an important role in delivering safe, stable and trusted consumer healthcare products”.

They did not give a time frame or specific goals for plastic reduction in response to a query for information.

There doesn’t seem to be a real plan in place at GSK to reduce plastic in packaging.

Colgate-Palmolive confirmed they had no plans to use glass or metal packaging for toothpaste.

They aim to have 50% recycled content in packaging by 2020 and have committed to deliver 100% recyclable packaging in personal care products though no timescale was given for this goal.

At the time of writing, Proctor & Gamble, who make Crest toothpaste had not responded.

One oral hygienist from Dallas, USA, with an entertaining blog, says that it’s the brush and the brushing which actually clean our teeth.

She says: “You can use baking soda, or coconut oil, or your favourite toothpaste, or even just plain water.

“The key is to have a good technique and to brush often… the bottom line is that your paste will mask brushing technique issues, so don’t put so much faith in the power of toothpaste.”

This is a lady has brushed her teeth in cold coffee before…

What you choose depends on whether you want fluoride or you don’t; whether a paid-for accreditation means something to you, or it doesn’t; whether zero-waste paste meets your needs and, as always, what your budget is.

Whatever you choose, please remember that Doncaster Council blue recycling bins cannot currently accept plastic toothpaste packaging, even if it says “recyclable”, unless the packaging is a bottle.