“Floss daily.” It’s the age-old mantra I’ve heard from the dentist since I was two years old. Medically speaking, our teeth are one of only two body parts that require regular cleaning (second only to washing our hands). It may be the dullest of habits, and one we vaguely remember to do every day (or whenever we get around to it...or perhaps, after munching on corn on the cob). Bottom line is we don’t often think much about flossing, but how we practice oral hygiene is important for more reasons than you think.
In fact, what if the type of floss we used could significantly shrink our carbon footprint?
Turns out, it absolutely does. Given how trendy it’s become to be eco-friendly, many of us are in the habit of bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, pouring our coffee in reusable cups, and swapping standard light bulbs for LED ones. We might even forego a bit of electricity in honor of Earth Day. But it might surprise you to learn that even the most modest of our daily consumer goods are nevertheless quite the mal à la tête for Mother Nature.
Ho-hum as we may feel about the dentist’s orders to floss every day (speaking for a friend, obviously), we shouldn’t underestimate the impact plastic floss has on the ecosystem. In short: it’s very bad. Thankfully, there are other options for substituting plastic floss for a natural kind. Not only does zero-waste floss exist, but were we to use it to wholly replace synthetic floss, this would drop the continuous dumping of a dangerous material into the environment.
Read on to learn why you might consider switching to a sustainable floss, what zero-waste floss substitutes are available, and what type of eco-friendly floss I use and why I enjoy it.
Why to Switch to Eco-Friendly Floss
As stewards of the planet, we have some major room for improvement. The statistics that show not only the current state of our environment, but also where it’s heading, paint a grim picture for our future.
- Of the 7.9 billion people on the planet, about 4.2 billion of them are consumers.
- In 2021, we’ve extracted nearly 21 trillion tons of resources globally.
- Also in 2021, we’ve dumped 497 million tons of waste.
- Experts expect plastic in the oceans to outweigh fish by 2050.
- Between 1985 and 2019, the average temperature in 50% of US counties rose more than 2.7° F, a key threshold of climate warming identified by NASA.
- This year has seen $1.8 trillion in chemical production sales.
- 1 billion toothbrushes are tossed out in the US every year.
These are daunting numbers, but may mean little when presented solely as facts and figures. Think of what this could mean for us, the human population:
- It is estimated that in less than 79 years, rainforests will disappear.
- In less than 29 years, the earth’s support systems will collapse, and its food supply will vanish.
- In less than 19 years, we will run out of fresh water.
- Air pollution (indoors or outdoors) is estimated to cause about 2 million premature deaths worldwide per year.
- It’s associated with heart attacks, asthma attacks, bronchitis, hospital and emergency room visits, work and school days lost, restricted activity days, respiratory symptoms, and premature mortality.
Yikes. When I learned this, I was stunned. How much had I contributed to this, in the name of staunchly sticking with my favorite shampoo, or indulging my own laziness with recycling?
We may not be able to change the world overnight. But we can all do our part, believe it or not, by starting with reconsidering what’s in our medicine cabinet. And when factoring how our consumer choices impact the health of our planet - and its eventual toll on public health - everything counts. No contributing factor (big or small) is inconsequential...even dental floss.
Dental Floss: Environmental Foe
As a synthetic product, dental floss is waxed nylon, which comes from crude oil, or petroleum. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has acknowledged the harm to marine wildlife and their ecosystems from oil drilling and oil spillages. Therefore, floss manufacturing causes harm from its earliest stages: when its raw materials are extracted.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Yes, even after it's made, that innocuous little roll of string in your bathroom wreaks more environmental havoc than you might think. Thanks to the news media, the most notorious plastic products, demonized in viral videos and damning headlines, are drinking straws and six pack beverage rings. Floss, however, leaves its own alarming damages in its wake.
This devilish little string is so small that it easily ends up where it shouldn’t: in the ocean, or other ecosystems. And due to its signature tear-resistant design, it can cause a whole host of problems once it enters the water and engages with marine wildlife.
Remember learning in third grade the frightening prospect of what happens if you swallow your chewing gum? It sits in your stomach for seven years, they’d say. While this folklore is a myth for humans and gum (I finally learned it passes through our digestive system, to the relief of seventeenth-grade me), this timeline does ring true for animals and floss. When swallowed by an animal, floss can sit in its stomach for several years, which can create a number of health issues. This is even further problematic, sadly, for species already considered threatened or endangered. Because floss is also prone to wrapping around their necks, it can also strangle marine animals.
A word on carbon neutrality
Why all the environmental statistics to discuss dental hygiene? To slow the rate of our planet’s decay, the ultimate objective is carbon neutrality, or achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. A big part of this means cutting down non-biodegradable waste output. This includes floss.
It’s true, plastic is everywhere. But here’s the good news: we enjoy more zero-waste alternative products now than ever before. For the consumer, adopting more environmentally-friendly habits and swapping for zero-waste products is the easiest it’s ever been.
Think of the nuisance factors that make flossing such an unpleasant chore: the inadvertent stabbing and bleeding of your gums, the bland tastelessness, the funny sensation of the fibers that you never quite adjust to. Today, a variety of natural floss options are available that quell all of those unbecoming peccadillos of flossing.
How to Make the Swap
Now that you’re ready to ditch your plastic floss and opt for an eco-friendly version, there are a few types to consider: bamboo, corn, and silk. The “better” option for you will depend on the factors you already consider when choosing a floss: comfort, feel, vegan-friendly, and perhaps flavor (I enjoy cinnamon myself). In other words, it’s up to your personal preference.
Natural options are often coated first in candelilla wax (a plant-based substance), then in essential oils, meant to give a more pleasant and gentler flossing experience on your gums. As a cautious flosser prone to making my gums bleed by accident, I found this feature appealing.
Bamboo floss, as you might have guessed, comes from the fibers of bamboo. Activated charcoal is often added in the process, due to its cleaning and absorption properties. The black color also shows more of the gunk removed from between your teeth. It’s a great floss alternative that brings the best of both worlds: not only is bamboo very strong, it’s also biodegradable and compostable. Vegans also give bamboo floss a thumbs up.
Another sustainable floss option is PLA corn floss. Also a vegan option, PLA corn floss is made with corn fibers. Some brands market it as “non-abrasive” corn, promising gentle flossing experience for sensitive gums.
While durable enough for use, it is the least so among natural floss options, so if you have particularly compact teeth, other natural floss types are probably better.
Silk is a natural product made from silkworms. As an animal by-product, it’s eco-friendly in its breakdown. Though not as strong as bamboo, it’s still strong enough for use.
If this factor matters to you, silk floss is not a vegan option. If you are willing to do the research, it brings you comfort to know that there are options that harvest the silk from silkworms humanely. (This is not always the case, as some methods involve boiling the silkworms alive as they extract their silk.) But if any animal byproduct is not for you, regardless of harvesting method, give silk a pass.
What I use
Ladies especially, I know you hear me…We love the products we love, for the joys they bring and the comfort of using that which is familiar and reliable to us. But when it comes to cutting down household waste, a little bit goes a long way, even more so when we make those small steps collectively.
Yes, if I - a self-dubbed beauty and cosmetics shaman whose definition of wellness is surrounding myself with colorful bottles of this and that - can swap my beloved Johnson & Johnson Reach Waxed Dental Floss in Cleanburst Cinnamon for a zero-waste floss alternative, then yes...so can anyone.
I decided to give zero-waste floss. As we discussed earlier, it’s a vegan option made of candelilla wax. It is 33 yards of compostable, eco-friendly, zero-waste oral care, and it’s mint-flavored. Even the packaging gets an environmental thumbs up: the cute little box, minimal and easy to open, is made with Kraft paper, the printing with soybean ink.
I’ve used cheap floss (with which I’m prone to stabbing my gums), and I’ve used higher-grade floss (which feels much more pleasant); this one feels pleasant on the mouth (shall we say pleasant “mouth feel”?) and glides smoothly during use. Above all else, however, is the emotional reward of feeling like I’ve done something responsible by choosing to be a more mindful consumer.
What if I already have plastic dental floss?
Tossing out your erstwhile synthetic floss would defeat the purpose of being less wasteful, right? Before you throw it away, remember the properties of dental floss we talked about. Its size and durability make it a great household product, so consider the many ways it can be used other than for oral hygiene.
In the kitchen, use floss as a cutting device. Soft cheeses, cakes, and other soft baked goods respond well to it. Speaking of baked goods, having trouble prying cookies off a baking sheet? Floss can loosen it right off. When baking meats, bind it as a kitchen twine.
For household products, the options seem endless. Floss is strong enough to act as picture wire, a clothesline, shoelace replacement, sealant tape, trunk tie down, or plant support for gardening. You can even tie it around a bundle of kindling when starting a fire, or dip it in wood filler and lay in wood cracks to fill them.
Helping out the environment can start as small as changing your dental floss. Shifting or swapping habits successfully means starting small and staying consistent, and this can start with what products you choose for dental floss. The type of zero-waste floss you choose simply depends on personal preference, and whether a vegan option is important to you. By making a simple swap of synthetic floss for natural floss, you will contribute to a better environment and a healthier planet. Seek Bamboo is here to help you transition to a sustainable lifestyle. By offering plastic-free floss, silk floss refills, and bamboo floss refills removing plastic from the oral care routine has never been easier!
Taylor Logeman is a writer, travel blogger, and fashion enthusiast. She writes fashion, travel, lifestyle, and op-ed pieces for a number of publications and partners with marketing clients as a copywriter. Her passions in personal growth, womens’ health, and environmental consciousness influence many of her personal written works. From London to D.C., Taylor has lived in, visited, and written about multiple cities around the world, sharing her journey to her readership on her blog.
Taylor lives in Washington, DC, in a little house on Capitol Hill. Follow her on her blog at www.taylorlogeman.com.