This post first appeared on TheTinLife on 25 August 2020.
“The simplification of life is one of the steps to inner peace.” — Mildred Norman
I’ve been using homemade skincare products for many years now. It wasn’t always so; I very much grew up purchasing brightly coloured products packaged in plastic from the supermarket and chemist. So much so, my initial reaction to even considering switching to homemade versions was, to be precise, “Ew”.
While I continue to experiment and discover new things (though haircare remains my tricky area), I’ve found genuine solace in these simple, eco-conscious, non-toxic and low-waste beauty and health products. In the gentle spirit of siblinghood, I shall periodically share my current favourites. Today: tooth powder.
On my first day in a new apartment when I moved to Bombay for work, I slipped on soapy water on a marble floor. I was carrying scissors at the time so I instinctively kept my hands away rather than use them to break my fall – so instead my face smashed into the floor. Blood poured from my forehead and my teeth broke.
The collision actually affected a whole load of my teeth and it took four months of extremely intensive (and expensive) dental work to fix everything. This was more than 10 years ago and I’m very loyal to this dentist, Dr Rohit Sharma, who put me back together. In fact, there were many times I planned to visit Bombay in subsequent years and noted that, ah yes, I could time it so I could get my routine cleaning done then too, such is my loyalty.
Anyway, he’s all high tech and gadgety (in fact, during this Covid pandemic, he is the rare dentist who didn’t have to upgrade his gear because he was already using the latest, cleanest, WHO–approved virus-wiping technology). And he rather despairs of my tree-hugging tendencies, as these have often resulted in terrible plaque.
He’d sternly prescribe toothpaste with triclosan and I would sneak off and use coconut oil instead. He’d recommend the latest wonders in electronic toothbrush technology and I stayed faithful to compostable bamboo toothbrushes from my local organic shop.
Anyway, all this to say that I did end up missing one of my six-monthly cleaning appointments (thanks, pandemic) so he saw me after a year. I worried about the state of my plaque. He said it wasn’t bad, in fact it was better than usual.
I felt victorious. I said, GUESS WHAT I’m using? (He said, “neem stick”, for such is his opinion of me.)
Nope, it’s baking soda and salt.
Now, it’s not the first time I tried using this. I tried variations by adding flavourings as well as clay. But clay makes the sink not-pretty and that stressed me out too much. I tried coconut oil but that was a slimy (and travel-tricky) experience, so I stopped that too. So for the past year and half or so, I’ve been using just baking soda and salt.
This formula is simple: two easily available ingredients are mixed together. They store well and last for ages. You likely already have them in your cupboard. And they are cheap.
This formula is eco-conscious: baking soda – also known as bicarbonate of soda – is a mineral that’s the darling of natural home cleaning remedies (I use it extensively for this too). Salt is also a chemical mineral, found in rocks or diluted by the sea. For this recipe, you want to avoid table salt, which is heavily processed and contains additives.
This formula is chic: it’s free of ugly splatter and slime. A small container of it goes a long way. Unlike paste, it’s never going to drop onto your collar and stain you on a rushed morning. It’s just all-round elegant. (Julia Roberts once credited her famously dazzling smile to following her grandfather’s advice of brushing with baking soda.)
Note: it’s important to use baking soda and salt that are very fine; the more powdery the better.
Here’s what I do:
- For every 4 tablespoons of baking soda, add ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt.
It’s not precise, and the ratio can vary according to your own taste. You can even omit the salt if you like, as those with extra sensitive teeth may find it abrasive, and just use baking soda.
I add salt primarily for flavour. Stevia is another option, but I’m a salty kind of person rather than sweet; I also have salt at home, and don’t have stevia kicking around. Salt has the benefit of being a natural disinfectant.
I make a large batch in a bowl, mix it well, then store in a glass jar. I decant from this into a smaller container for daily use. You can use a spice dispenser. I recycled the plastic bottle from a commercial tooth powder I’d bought from the US (Eco-Dent Daily Care, anise flavour – not a bad way to introduce yourself to tooth powder if you need a tasty gateway).
Shake a little onto your palm and pick it up with a wet toothbrush. Brush as normal. I use the same quantity as I would have if it were paste: a small dollop.
It costs pennies, takes a minute to “make” and lasts more than a year. It’s also dry and light, which makes it excellent for travel. In fact, I started doing this when I was on the road and found it so wonderful, I now use it full time.
My mother, who buys commercial toothpaste, gets ones from major brands that excitedly proclaim it contains SALT or BAKING SODA. I prefer to cut out all the other ingredients (which are often extremely toxic chemicals that are poisonous if you swallow them – yet putting them in your mouth is a good idea?).
It is actually the mechanical process of brushing that cleans our teeth. The products we use is in aid of that, and are not meant to do the heavy lifting. I like to use an extra soft toothbrush and prefer a small head so I can reach the back of my mouth easily, so often children’s bamboo toothbrushes with super soft nylon heads are my best bet.
If you want to consider – as I always do – hey, is this a commercially–created product that artificially fabricates a “need” we actually don’t require to use in the first place? (I’m looking at you, anti-ageing products designed to propagate women’s insecurities.)
I think it is a good idea to clean our teeth (though I don’t believe our breath needs to smell of synthetic mint) because our diets now are so heavily processed. This includes the use of all kinds of flour – even if you’re grinding it yourself at home – let alone commercially packaged products with preservatives. And you don’t need me to tell you sugar is the very worst thing we can eat for our teeth (and our health).
If you want to go a step further in natural and biodegradable dental care and with only one product, you can indeed, despite my dentist’s derision, use neem sticks (also known as miswak). These are twigs from the neem tree that you use to clean your teeth with, as you would a brush, with no paste/powder required. You then trim off the used part which you can compost.
The US federal National Institutes of Health did a randomised clinical trial of neem sticks and standard toothbrushes. The neem sticks won. “[T]these sticks contain natural ingredients, which are beneficial for oral health. It has been reviewed that it contains ascorbic acid, tri-methylamine, chloride, fluoride, silica, resins, and salvadorine, which have proved potency to heal the inflamed and bleeding gums, produce stimulatory effect on gingiva, remove tartar, and other stains from the teeth, re-mineralize dental hard tissue, whitens teeth, provide enamel barrier, and increase salivary flow, respectively. In addition, chewing sticks also contains volatile oils, tannic acid, sulphur and sterols which attribute to anti-septic, astringent and bactericidal properties that help reduces plaque formation, provides anti-carious effects, eliminates bad odor, improves the sense of taste, and cure many systemic diseases.”
Wowza. I haven’t tried them yet so can’t yet say how awesome they are, but this is what we have historically used for centuries, so there you go. They would be especially ideal for when you don’t have access to water, such as camping (or – if I think of long–haul flights of my past – travelling as well).
One thing we could reconsider using is the toothbrush. Hear me out. Many cultures, if using a cleansing substance, often use their finger to “brush”. In my mother’s village, they used to chew on a small chunk of charcoal, then use their fingers to massage it well over their teeth and gums before rinsing it out. This was used alternately with neem sticks.
Using fingers has several benefits: one is the proper massaging of gums. It also naturally has an effect of keeping teeth growing straighter (this is anecdotally evident when later generations switched to toothbrushes). We also get direct feedback on the state of our mouth and teeth from our fingertip in a way we simply can’t with a toothbrush.
Also, it connects us to ourselves, much like eating meals with our hands instead of using cold metal cutlery. We become one with ourselves. Food for thought!
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Aristotle