It’s something you put inside your mouth at least twice a day (ideally), but you may not spend much time thinking about what exactly goes into making it. Perhaps you’ve wondered while you were using it but the thought fled your mind as you moved on to more pressing concerns of the day. Well, it’s time to find out: what exactly are toothbrushes made of?
First things first: not all toothbrushes are created equal, which is to say they are not all made of identical materials, but there are certainly overlapping priorities in the making of all toothbrushes. That is, all toothbrushes strive to provide the best possible clean for the teeth they are used on. They look to be firm enough to provide a good clean and last, while being soft enough not to damage vulnerable gum surfaces. That combination is hard to get just right, but toothbrush makers try their best to achieve this combo.
Most modern commercial toothbrushes are made of plastic. The handles are made of plastics that can be injected into molds. The most common plastics used are polypropylene and polyethylene. Polypropylene is recycle number 5, so it is possible to recycle it in some places. Polyethylene is made in two varieties. The first is recycle code 1, which is commonly recycled. Recycle code 4 versions are harder to find places equipped to recycle them.
It’s fair to ask why plastic is commonly used with growing concern about plastic’s impact on environmental health. One key reason lies with the health of your teeth. Plastic is resistant to bacterial action, so the bacteria from your teeth will not break down the plastic while you are using it, and you can sanitize your toothbrush more efficiently.
In most commercially produced toothbrushes, the bristles are made of nylon. Nylon is a synthetic fiber (the first ever invented, actually) that is strong and flexible. It doesn’t degrade, or break down, in water or with the types of ingredients usually found in toothpaste, which makes for a toothbrush with a longer usable life. Although nylon-4 is compostable in the right conditions, most toothbrushes use nylon-6 which is not.
If you are looking to avoid plastic toothbrushes, you are likely to find a number of options for you. There are several specialty companies that make toothbrushes with wooden handles, usually bamboo because it has several appealing eco-friendly features. Bamboo can be sustainably harvested and exhibits slight antimicrobial tendencies.
As for bristles, some manufacturers use boar (pig) hair bristles to manufacture an all-natural toothbrush. There are some downsides to pig hair bristles, including that they tend to retain bacteria and are not suitable for vegetarians. Most manufacturers of natural toothbrushes use a nylon bristle, often with a high blend of plant oils blended in. They do so to make sure the toothbrush is safe and effective. A 100% plant based, effective bristle does not yet exist, but research and development continues, driven by consumer interest in more natural products.
Still wanting more? Check out this video of toothbrushes being made from the science channel for some great visuals of the manufacturing process of conventional toothbrushes.