Researchers ask: how sustainable is your toothbrush?

toothbrush sustainability
Photo: Maria Igisheva – 123rf

Researchers from Ireland have examined the sustainability of different models of the most commonly used oral health product—the toothbrush—to ascertain which is best for the planet and human health.

Although the toothbrush is a widely recommended healthcare device worldwide, there is currently little quantitative data available for its impact on the planet. 

The research study, a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and Eastman Dental Institute at University College London, is published in the British Dental Journal and represents the first time a life-cycle assessment (LCA) has been used to measure environmental consequences of a healthcare product.

The researchers considered different manufacturing models as well as measured the environmental impact (carbon footprint) and human health impact (DALYS) of the electric toothbrush, the standard plastic brush, the plastic brush with replaceable head, and the bamboo brush.

The team found that the electric toothbrush was comparatively harmful for planetary health.

The findings highlight the human health burden of the toothbrush manufacturing process. The electric toothbrush causes 10 hours of disability measured in Disability-Adjusted Life years or DALYS mainly for the people associated with the process of making and producing the devices. This is five times higher than a normal plastic brush.

The team found that the most environmentally sustainable toothbrush was not bamboo, as could perhaps be popularly believed, but a hypothetical continually recycled plastic toothbrush.

This simple comparative LCA showed that a plastic manual replaceable head toothbrush and bamboo manual toothbrush perform better than traditional plastic manual and electric toothbrushes in every environmental impact outcome measure used in this study. 

The researchers said their results could be used to inform individual consumer choice, oral health recommendations, procurement of toothbrushes for public health programs, and toothbrush manufacturers. 

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