Alternatives for Toothbrushes

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They might not be approved by the American Dental Association, but alternative toothbrushes are out there. After all, people had to use something to clean their teeth before toothbrushes were invented, and they did, using such items as sage, twigs and cactus needles. Today, some people might choose to use alternatives for toothbrushes because of all the plastic waste produced by discarded toothbrushes. Americans discard 25,000 tons of toothbrushes per year, according to the March 14, 2009, Washington Post article "A Trashed Economy Foretold." Others just want to scrub their teeth with something more natural than nylon bristles. Here are some of the more popular alternatives to the modern toothbrush.

Fibrous Foods

Use fibrous foods that require lots of chewing, such as apples, celery or carrots, to massage gum lines and tooth surfaces. To be effective, these must be used after every time you eat--even if it’s just a mid-afternoon snack.


In the Ibicencan tradition, sage is rubbed thoroughly on the surfaces of the teeth for a tooth-scrubbing and refreshing experience. Sage is a good scrubber; it also is delicious and is a mild antiseptic, too. It can help heal ulcers in the mouth.


Charcoal, a tooth cleaner used in Malaysia, can be taken from a fire pit after the fire has gone out, ground in a mortar and pestle with some sage, mint, cinnamon or eucalyptus, and rubbed on the teeth. It won’t stain your teeth; it rinses off easily.

Cactus or Pine Needle

Cactus or pine needles are good for scraping plaque from in between your teeth. Similar to a toothpick, these are not a flossing substitute, but these scrapers are a good complement to an alternative toothbrush. Other toothpicks used throughout history include porcupine quills and shards of bone.


An obvious toothbrush alternative is to use something you’ll always have with you--your finger! Combined with a slightly abrasive paste, such as baking soda or even regular toothpaste, a finger can get the job done, at least for a little while. The tip of a finger alone won’t do much scrubbing, but it is possible to scrape some plaque off with a fingernail.


Licorice, neem, senna, arak, birch, persimmon, eucalyptus and elm are woody plants a person can use as a toothbrush. These varieties of tooth-scrubbing twigs hail from all over the world. In fact, twigs have been used for thousands of years as toothbrushes; in Babylonia, they were used dating to 3,500 B.C. Some of these twigs have antibiotic properties, such as neem; others are refreshing, such as eucalyptus; and others are stimulating, such as licorice. To use a twig as a toothbrush, chew on the end for a while, until it gets bristly with fibers. This chewing helps clean between your teeth. You also can use the fibers to clean your gum line and tooth surfaces in a gentle, circular motion, like with a commercial toothbrush. The twigs should be used only once, then composted.