DIY Tooth Powder: A Plastic-free Alternative
Last updated April 11, 2018
Is baking soda a safe ingredient to use in DIY tooth powder? I'm not sure. When I first wrote this post, I believed wholeheartedly in the safety and benefits of baking soda for tooth brushing. Though rather than tell you whether to use it or not, I'm presenting the results of my research, below. I think it's best that you and your dentist decide. But first, let's learn some fascinating facts about baking soda!
This post is not a substitute for good dental or medical care. Also, I'm not a doctor or healthcare professional. So please don't use this information to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any ailment or disease. Consult with your dentist or doctor, first!
Why all the interest in DIY Tooth Powder?
Toothpaste tubes: some myths
The DIY tooth powder movement originated from consumers' concerns about the environmental impacts of plastic toothpaste tubes and also ingredients used in some toothpaste brands. Many people think they can recycle toothpaste tubes. But the truth is that toothpaste tubes, according to this site, are made of different kinds of plastics and sometimes aluminum, too, so they're difficult to recycle because of the different materials they contain. In fact, most of the time, toothpaste tubes end up in the trash, taking 500-700 years to break down. In the process, they can leach harmful chemicals, which end up in our groundwater.
And besides, recycling isn't all it's cracked up to be. Plastic can only be recycled once before ultimately ending up in landfills, although some new technologies are looming on the horizon to change that. But how many plastic park benches and plastic sculptures do we really need? From an aesthetic point of view, I would think, none.
And even if the plastic containers are BPA-free, is plastic really safe? Check out this article and the Ecology Center on research behind BPA and other BPA-free plastics. I'm most comfortable avoiding it, but just like many of you, I have some legwork to do before completely ridding our home of all plastic.
But many people are also concerned about ingredients used in popular toothpaste brands, both conventional and the "healthy" brands. Should I use a fluoride toothpaste? And what about sodium laurel sulfate? Some dentists are even opposed to using toothpastes that contain glycerin.
I wish I could answer these questions for you, but I don't feel comfortable doing that. For the remainder of this blog post, however, I will share what I learned about baking soda. And just to give you a heads up, professional opinions on the subject are all over the map.
Baking soda facts
where does baking soda come from, and is it environmentally friendly?
This following information is an example of bad journalism on my part because I'm going to refer you to a fascinating post about baking soda from Grist, instead of doing all the research myself. I wouldn't do this if I didn't trust the source, though.
The first important fact about baking soda is that you can't collect it from a pile somewhere out in nature. The minerals, nahcolite and trona, that comprise baking soda are mined. Well, that's not exactly how it goes. First, the minerals are mined followed by a refining process, which yields soda ash (bicarbonate). Soda ash is used to make products, such as glass, cloth, paper—and baking soda. The article in Grist is quite fascinating, so I hope you'll visit their site for more details.
But the upshot, according to the Grist article, is that, yes, even though mining the raw materials that go into making baking soda requires energy and emits toxic chemicals into the air and water—not to mention disrupts wildlife habitats—baking soda production is still a pretty safe bet as far as the environment goes. After all, everything we make affects the environment is some way.
is baking soda abrasive?
Most of the concern about baking soda's safety has to do with its abrasiveness. If you're up for learning all about Mohs Hardness Scale, which measures the scratch resistance of minerals, baking soda turns out to be less abrasive than most toothpastes—according to this and this site (links to dentists' websites). And I found this chart (pdf) particularly helpful, too.
But let's dig a little deeper. All toothpastes on the market must be given an RDA value (relative dentin abrasivity). If you take a look at the charts in the links, above, you can compare the RDA value of many popular toothpaste brands to baking soda. Interestingly, baking soda has a lower RDA value than all the brands of toothpastes listed. So, this makes the fact that some professionals advise against using it because of its abrasiveness—which I share in the following section—a curious matter. I'm not suggesting that they're wrong; I just wish someone in the field of dentistry would provide an explanation. I don't have a sense that a lot of research has been done on the topic.
But is baking soda safe to use on teeth?
Some dentists think it is
This is where it gets tricky. And not all dentists agree. Dr. Mark Burhenne at Ask the Dentist recommends baking soda as a DIY toothpaste ingredient or as a stand-alone DIY tooth powder. According to Dr. Burhenne, "it helps to neutralize acids while not being too abrasive to teeth." But it's important to point out that Dr. Burhenne doesn't recommend using baking soda to whiten teeth.
Dynamic Dental also recommends baking soda for oral health along with Dr. Benjamin Greene at Kirkland Family Dentistry, here. I like that baking soda is inexpensive, and there's no plastic packaging to worry about—not to mention microbeads. And for the record, baking soda has helped remove surface stains from my teeth. After all, I do love my coffee and chocolate!
other dentists disagree
On the other hand, other dentists think you should only use baking soda once a week to remove stains because it can damage tooth enamel. Some of these sites goes on to say that baking soda can also damage adhesives used in braces and dental fixtures. And just so you know I've covered my bases, these two dental practices, here and here, pretty much give the same advice as the site above. They either do not recommend baking soda at all or suggest using it on a limited basis.
what to do?
I'm not using my DIY tooth powder anymore because my teeth and gums have become sensitive. But did baking soda cause the problem? I doubt it, but I can't say for sure. I didn't have any problems using my DIY tooth powder at first. Now, the only thing I can do is wait for my teeth and gums to feel better (and see a dentist!) and try again later. Though my husband, who has sensitive teeth, hasn't had any problems at all brushing with baking soda.
I can't help but wonder if I did myself in with all the peppermints I was sucking on for my stomach aches! But that is speculation. And, so far, I haven't found a plastic-free solution I'm comfortable with other than simply using my toothbrush. Yet, not all dentists would be comfortable with that, either. Evidentally, dental hygiene is a touchy subject.
I recommend you talk to your dentist before you try my DIY tooth powder. I've listed other plastic-free options below, but not everyone feels comfortable with some of the ingredients—besides baking soda—in these products, either. This whole tooth brushing thing is complicated!
other plastic-free options
Below are plastic-free tooth powder and toothpaste options that other people have tried, but I can't personally recommend them, or not, because I haven't tried them. Please do your own research, and, again, talk to your dentist.
As a reminder, I don't earn money or receive free products by linking to any of these sites. Often, if I mention a company in a post, they contact me to ask that I provide a link. So, these links are here for your convenience and as a courtesy to the few companies I've listed.
- Some people use the EWG's Skin Deep database as a resource for safe personal care products, and I noticed that the site lists some plastic-free toothpastes and tooth powders in the safe categories. Here's the link to that page.
- Aquarian Bath sells tooth powder in metal tins in different varieties. I love the products I've purchased from this company, but I haven't tried the tooth powders, yet.
- Zero Waste Chef has some DIY options, too, here and here.
- Life Without Plastic sells toothpaste in a glass jar, and it doesn't contain bentonite clay, an ingredient some people don't feel comfortable using.
- Beth Terry at My Plastic Free Life has a great post about plastic-free toothpaste and tooth powders, here.
- Another option is a toothpaste packaged in a metal tube (recyclable aluminum). I don't think this product was available when I first wrote this post.
closing thoughts on brushing with baking soda
I almost deleted this blog post because of the controversies surrounding brushing with baking soda. But I actually get a lot of visitors to this page, so I left my DIY tooth powder recipe up (below) for those who do feel it's safe and want to give it a try. Though please use it with care—if you decide to use it all—and talk to your dentist first. It may be that baking soda is safe for some people to use but not others.
Also, I hope you share this post with your dentist. Since the DIY culture is alive and well, perhaps, it's best we include them in the conversation. Besides, I don't think we've heard the last word on brushing with baking soda just yet. And I appreciate different perspectives.
DIY tooth powder recipe
About 1/4 cup of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (not course)
12 to 15 drops of essential oil of peppermint
I purchase essential oil of peppermint from Mountain Rose Herbs or my local food co-op. Mix all of the above ingredients in a small bowl and evenly distribute the essential oil of peppermint. Based on my research, I use 3-5 drops of essential oil per 1 tablespoon of baking soda. Since my jar holds around 1/4 cup, which is 4 tablespoons, I use 15-20 drops. Simply adjust amounts for the size of your container. It's important to point out, though, that you can even omit the essential oil.
Another option is to make a single-use batch of toothpaste or tooth powder that you only use once. I know that might seem like a lot of trouble, but it cuts out the hassle of mixing the ingredients and finding a container. Sierra Magazine has instructions on how to do that, here.
A funnel is helpful when transferring the tooth powder to its final home, but I often just mix the ingredients in the container itself. Because of the essential oil, though, make sure to use glass or stainless steel for storage. Other ideas for essential oils are referenced in the post mentioned above.
This seems obvious, but I don't recommend this recipe for young children. First of all, they probably wouldn't appreciate the taste! Yet, my twelve-year-old likes it fine, now. Also, essential oils are a tricky ingredient for children and may not be safe for them, depending on the child's age and the essential oil. Please consult your dentist or doctor.
I did go ahead and purchase a stainless steel shaker for my DIY tooth powder because I wanted to keep the baking soda clean and dry. I also like how the shaker allows me to control the amount of soda being poured, and it closes with a quick turn of the lid.
But mostly, I'm a sucker for attractive containers. This really isn't necessary, though. An empty spice jar or a simple glass jar of any kind would work well, too. I tend to buy my spices in bulk and re-use my spice jars. So, believe it or not, I didn't actually have one available. I suggest checking out local thrift stores. They often have lots of interesting options for DIY projects!
Oh yeah, one more thing: Have fun! —Laura