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From toxic fluoride to timeless botanicals: rediscovering the true essence of oral care

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By Susana Gago

· 8 min read

In the vast expanse of oral hygiene narratives, the story of toothpaste, especially its relationship with fluoride, stands out as both fascinating and troubling. As we trace this journey from toxic by-product to mainstream ingredient, the spotlight also turns to ancient traditional practices from global bioregions, which offer eco-friendly, health-centric alternatives.

The incorporation of fluoride into toothpaste during the 1950s marks a significant chapter in our understanding of human adaptability and commercial opportunism. Found in areas dedicated to refining aluminium and metal ore, the resultant toxic slag, laden with halogens, presented industries with a disposal challenge. However, the revelation that fluoride could bind with calcium and potentially fortify teeth offered these industries a golden opportunity: turning a problematic waste into a lucrative ingredient for oral care products, with total disregard for its potential harmful effects on human and planetary health.

But the story doesn’t stop here. To cater to evolving consumer predilections and market demands, an ensemble of ingredients made their way into our toothpaste tubes. The addition of sodium dodecyl sulphate (SDS), for example, was aimed at providing users with the ‘foamy clean’ sensation they associated with thorough cleansing. Contemporary toothpaste formulas may list a plethora of ingredients, but fluoride remains at the crux of debate. Its dichotomy is evident: while championed for enamel fortification, the fact that fluoride, alarmingly, has roots in industrial waste and inherent toxic traits cannot be ignored.

To make toothpaste more consumer-friendly, various formulations, from pastes to gels, were tried. A key insight was that foam equated to cleanliness for consumers, leading to the addition of sodium dodecyl sulphate (SDS). SDS's potential toxicity and health risks were conveniently overlooked by the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in the US.

Furthermore, there's growing awareness about fluoride's effect on the pineal gland, potentially impacting our inner vision and discernment capabilities. Such effects may be insidious, leading to diminished consciousness and potential, especially in developing children. Fluoride, particularly when consumed in excessive amounts, has been linked to adverse effects on the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland located in the brain. In children, the pineal gland is essential for timely hormonal regulation and developmental milestones. Research suggests that fluoride can accumulate in the pineal gland, leading to the formation of phosphate crystals, which may impede the gland's function. This potential disruption could subsequently influence the synthesis and secretion of melatonin, a hormone critical for regulating sleep-wake cycles, puberty onset, and circadian rhythms. As such, children exposed to high levels of fluoride might experience developmental delays, altered sleep patterns, or hormonal imbalances.

Typical modern toothpastes comprise abrasives, fluoride, humectants, binders, flavouring agents, preservatives, and foaming detergents (most of them toxic compounds). Various substances, from calcium carbonate to phosphate salts, serve as abrasives. Despite its perceived benefits, fluoride is a double-edged sword. It's positioned as beneficial for tooth enamel, but it's a known protoplasmic poison with potential adverse effects on our enzyme systems. Alarmingly, the fluoride in many public water systems originates from industrial hazardous wastes.

But wait, How about the packaging?

Toothpaste packaging, predominantly composed of plastic tubes and sometimes aluminium laminates, poses both environmental and potential health concerns. Plastic, derived from petrochemicals, is non-biodegradable, meaning discarded tubes can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, contributing to the vast plastic pollution epidemic in our oceans and on land. These plastics, over time, can break down into microplastics, which are consumed by marine life and subsequently enter the food chain, posing health risks for larger animals and humans. 

Aluminium laminates, while lightweight and durable, require significant energy for production and, when discarded, can leach aluminium and other toxins into the soil, contaminating groundwater sources. This kind of contamination can adversely impact aquatic life and human populations that rely on these water sources.

Additionally, the recycling of toothpaste tubes is challenging due to their multi-layered composition, leading many recycling centres to consider them contaminants. This results in the majority of these tubes being disposed of in landfills, further amplifying the environmental burden. As consumers become more conscious of sustainable choices, there's a pressing need for the dental care industry to rethink its packaging materials to ensure both human and planetary health.

Traditional botanical care

As we delve deeper, the global tapestry unfurls revealing a rich anthology of traditional oral care regimens. Every bioregion, with its unique ecological footprint, holds indigenous herbs and plants that have catered to the well-being of its inhabitants for millennia. Africa's "Miswak," or the Salvadora persica twig, is more than a dental accessory; it's a cultural emblem that speaks of sustainable living and the continent's bond with nature. Latin America's Quillay tree, with its bark used for natural soaping, mirrors the harmonious coexistence of communities with their verdant surroundings. Europe's tryst with oak bark and sage for dental hygiene showcases the confluence of tradition and nature.

Yet, amongst these narratives, Ayurveda shines brilliantly. This ancient Indian science emphasizes holistic well-being and celebrates nature’s pharmacy. Ground spices like cinnamon and clove are just the beginning. The revered Neem tree, for instance, is nothing short of a botanical marvel and one of our favourite oils for haircare. Its leaves and twigs, replete with antibacterial prowess, promise not just oral hygiene but also an oral health sanctuary. Triphala, a harmonious blend of three distinct fruits, rejuvenates oral tissues, symbolizing nature's intricate balance. Yashtimadhu, commonly known as licorice root, is a revered herb in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Its Latin name, Glycyrrhiza glabra, means sweet root. This herb has been used for thousands of years across various cultures, not just as a sweetening agent but for its vast array of health benefits. In the realm of oral care is antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, effective against bacteria that cause tooth decay, and mitigates gum inflammation, making it beneficial for those suffering from gingivitis. Combats naturally bad breath, leaving the mouth feeling refreshed and clean, and with a pleasant taste in the mouth.
It also stimulates salivary flow, which is good for overall oral health.

Ayurvedic Oil Pulling: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Wellness

In the vast and time-honored tradition of Ayurveda, oil pulling stands out as a simple yet profound method for holistic oral care. Rooted in centuries of practice, this technique involves swishing a tablespoon of oil, typically sesame or coconut (or your local, cold-pressed virgin oil), in the mouth for an extended period, and then spitting it out. It’s more than just a ritual; it’s a detoxifying process, designed to draw out toxins and microorganisms from the oral cavity, thus purifying both mouth and body.

The myriad benefits of oil pulling are indeed impressive. Firstly, it promotes oral hygiene by targeting harmful bacteria, potentially reducing the risk of plaque buildup, gingivitis, and bad breath. The swishing action strengthens the gums, jaws, and muscles of the mouth, and can even aid in whitening the teeth over time. Moreover, the holistic approach of Ayurveda recognizes that the health of our mouth is intricately connected to our overall well-being. As such, oil pulling is believed to enhance the body’s detoxification processes, leading to clearer skin, improved digestion, and even alleviation of migraines. By integrating this ancient practice into our modern routines, we not only care for our oral health but also embrace a holistic path to overall vitality and wellness.

Copper Tongue Scraper: One more Ayurvedic Gem for Holistic Oral Health

Ayurveda, offers a wealth of practices that emphasize the interconnection between oral health and overall well-being. Among these treasures is the use of the copper tongue scraper, a tool that embodies simplicity yet delivers profound benefits.

The primary aim of using a copper tongue scraper is to gently get rid of toxins and bacteria from the surface of the tongue. Every morning, a coating forms on the tongue, which, according to Ayurveda, is a mixture of the overnight accumulation of toxins, or 'ama'. By scraping away this layer, one not only promotes fresher breath but also reduces the ingestion of bacteria and toxins that can compromise digestive health.

Copper, as a material, is particularly favoured for its natural antibacterial and antiviral properties. This makes it exceptionally effective in targeting harmful microbes in the mouth, potentially reducing the risk of oral infections. Regular use of a copper tongue scraper can also enhance our sense of taste, as it clears the taste buds from unwanted build-ups, allowing us to better savour the flavours of our food.

It supports better digestion by removing the mucus on the tongue that blocks enzyme receptors.

Beyond the tangible benefits, the ritual of tongue scraping each morning is a moment of self-care, an opportunity to check in with oneself at the start of each day. It acts as a reminder of the importance of daily routines in maintaining health, harmony, and balance. 

Epitemology of Alter-Native

The term "Alter-Native" in its etymology offers a profound revelation. To "alter the native" essence of a plant implies straying from its intrinsic curative potential. 'Ayurveda,' which seamlessly translates to 'life-knowledge' or the 'First Medicine,' is a testament to the pristine sanctity of herbs. Instead of alteration, it seeks alignment with nature's rhythm. This philosophy prompts a pertinent question: Isn't Ayurveda, with its time-honoured wisdom, the true embodiment of medicine? In light of this, modern Western medicine, despite its undeniable accomplishments, seems to deviate from the path of holistic wellness, positioning it as an 'alternative.'

In conclusion, our journey from the origins of fluoride to the renaissance of traditional herbal wisdom is revelatory. While contemporary amenities and products offer immediate gratification, the profound wisdom and sustainable promise of age-old practices are been revealed to us. Stretching from the African savannahs to the dense forests of Asia, from the rolling meadows of Europe to the vibrant ecosystems of the Americas, the age-old traditions of oral and personal care accentuate the beautiful, symbiotic relationship humanity shares with nature. As we navigate the crossroads of health, environment, regeneration and sustainability, embracing this heritage and making informed choices becomes paramount. For, in its purest form, nature remains our most potent, nurturing healer.


illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Susana Gago is the founder of UNAKTI, a female-led ecosystem dedicated to cultivating high-value medicinal and aromatic plants, and transforming them into pure raw materials for the Cosmetic, Health & Wellness industries. As part of her job at UNAKTI, she collaborates with local women farmers and communities, empowering them through regenerative medicinal forest cultivation to step up into leadership roles within their families and communities. 

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