Sure, a multi-day backpacking trip entails the embracing of filth, but that doesn’t have to include your teeth! I’m good with being sweaty, greasy, crusty, or physically covered in dirt, but when you take away my ability to brush the choppers, that’s when I feel my absolute grimiest. And that’s not so weird, considering that the well-being of your mouth impacts your overall health.
If you ask backpackers how they brush their teeth, you’ll hear a variety of answers – but most of these methods aren’t good for your health or the environment’s…
“I swallow my toothpaste after brushing to avoid leaving a trace.” Although swallowing trace amounts of toothpaste is not harmful (says so on the tube), toothpaste is not made with the most natural ingredients. You might not die from toothpaste poisoning but who wants to ingest things that they can’t pronounce the name of? And don’t think you’re fooling me by using those so-called all-natural toothpastes, like Tom’s of Maine! Yup, even those are made with detrimental substances. But hey, I respect your leave no trace technique.
“I use only all-natural toothpaste so it won’t harm my body or the environment I spit it onto.” On that note, all-natural isn’t always synonymous with “good for the environment.” Tom’s toothpastes have ingredients like Zinc Chloride, which have been scientifically classified as harmful to the environment and corrosive. Plus, a glob of all-natural toothpaste on the ground still smells the same as the unnatural stuff and will attract hungry critters. When an animal is affected by your remnants, that’s not leave-no-trace friendly.
“I don’t brush my teeth – it saves me 6 ounces of weight on my back and I don’t have to worry about where to spit.” Skipping a few sessions won’t kill ya, but every time you miss brushing your teeth in the AM or PM, plaque begins to form. Have you ever forgotten to brush your teeth before bed and woke up with a sticky film over them? That’s how quickly the bacterial plaque materializes, and it’s what leads to major tooth decay and gum disease if left untreated. Do you and your teeth a favor and just brush ‘em!!
“I brush my teeth like normal, but instead of spitting one giant toothpaste glob, I spray the paste over a large area to avoid enticing animals or damaging vegetation.” While this is a better technique than the alternative, it still has potential to lure wildlife (and highly advised against in bear country) and who wants to gaze at a landscape covered in white toothpaste splatter? Not to mention, it’s messy and hard to do.
So now you’re probably wondering, Well if I can’t do this and I can’t do that, how the hell am I supposed to brush my teeth?!
Brush with water, and only water. Toothpaste isn’t totally futile, but one reason it has become so integrated in our toothbrushing routine is because we associate its mintyness with cleanliness. Toothpaste is like dish soap; you don’t need soap to wash your plate clean, but it’s helpful is dislodging food gunk and gives you added confirmation that it is indeed sterile. Toothpaste also has flouride – a compound known to aid in preventing tooth decay. But when it comes down to it, the most effective component to teeth-brushing is the brushing, which breaks up the plaque forming on your teeth and gums.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, take science’s… According to a study executed by the Department of Periodontology, Academic Center for Dentistry, Amsterdam in 2007, brushing with water alone removed 6% more plaque than brushing with toothpaste.
So next time you’re packing for your trip into the backcountry, leave the paste at home. All you need is the brush and a reliable water filter (which you should have already). If you insist on that minty clean feeling, bring alone some peppermint or spearmint oil repackaged in a plastic drop bottle – you only need a splash to get that desired zing.
Now if only we could figure out how to stop forgetting our toothbrushes every trip…