Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Dr Rob Wood wanted to offer dentistry in an environmentally sustainable way. Then he realised there was one key tool that wasn’t environmentally friendly at all—toothpaste. By Rob Johnson
Many dentists have embraced initiatives to lessen their environmental impact on the world. Dr Rob Wood was always one of them. But he had never thought about finding a greener version of a basic tool that he and his patients use every day—toothpaste.
“It was actually a patient who asked me about it,” he explains. “A lovely lady, who used to be a diving instructor on one of the Pacific Islands. She said to me, ‘I really want to use chewable toothpaste tablets like you can buy overseas, but I can’t find any with fluoride in them in Australia’.” Together they booted up a computer, did a quick Google search, and realised she was right: “There’s nothing that’s matching dental needs to what she was after with the environmental side of things.”
While a cosmetics company produced tablets they marketed as chewable toothpaste, there was no fluoride in them. That discovery sent him down a three-year rabbit hole. Now he’s come out the other side with a chewable toothpaste tablet called ToothChews, which he hopes will fill a gap in the market with a product that is acceptable both from an environmental and oral health point of view. “What we don’t want is someone who’s an environmentalist jeopardising their oral health because they’re looking for an environmentally sound product,” he says. All he had to do was find a formula and a local lab that could help him make such a product, and the problem would be solved.
Except nothing is ever that easy.
Down the tube
Toothpaste hasn’t really changed a lot in the last 140 years. That’s because it’s a good product. It does the job it’s meant to—delivering a payload of fluoride alongside an abrasive that dislodges food scraps and a surfactant to make it foam. But we’ve always assumed that those key ingredients need to be delivered in a paste—which is up to 40 per cent water—even though it’s meant to be absorbed in saliva. And how many people actually recycle the tube the toothpaste comes in?
It was the tubes that really bugged Rob Wood. Not long after researching chewable toothpaste tablets with his patient, he was on holidays in Bali. “I got so angry, because every hotel room had these little tubes of toothpaste in them,” he says. “And look, I know toothpaste companies do their best. And some of those tubes are recyclable. But you’ve got to cut the top off, cut down it, open it up, clean it out, recycle it, and in reality, who does that? We all live such a busy life now. It’s just coming up with something that’s just quick and easy, and still recyclable, and reusable as well.”
He knew that before the end of the 19th century tooth powders were common. But they’re inadequate for containing dosages. Trusting a patient to put the right amount of gel in a take-home whitening kit is hard enough. And while suspending the active compounds in water was a great solution to that problem in a world where water was cheap and plentiful, we now live in a world where there isn’t enough clean fresh water for about a billion people. And where corporations buy that water and sell it back to wealthy people in plastic bottles.
Toothpaste tablets seem like a simple, sustainable solution to this problem. Dr Wood had found they were produced in several countries already, including Germany. Most were available online but weren’t well-known. “There’s one in New Zealand now called PopTabs, and one in America called Bite, and they’re probably really leading the way at the minute,” he says. “And then in the UK, there’s a similar product that started around the same time as mine. Ironically, it was a girl from the same dental school as me that just happened to do it. There was no communication between us—I just think people are becoming more environmentally conscious.”
That dental school was in Leeds, in the UK. “I qualified as a dentist in 2007, and then I lived all over the UK,” he says. “I was working up in Yorkshire and realised I had had enough of the cold dark winters. So I think it was in June that I looked into a sponsorship in Australia, and then by October I’d moved here. I just upped and left. Got rid of the flat, got rid of the furniture, and it just so happened that my sponsorship was in Noosa.”
Noosa has everything a young dentist from the UK could ever want—beaches, sun, surf, and a wonderful lifestyle. Turns out, though, it doesn’t have somewhere you can manufacture an alternative to toothpaste.
There’s no point in developing an environmentally friendly product, then shipping it halfway around the world on carbon-spewing bulk transport. “I was desperate to stay within Australia,” he says. “And the first challenge was that we’re small. So just finding someone who was willing to take that on was so hard. It’s a brand-new product over here so nobody could help if I said, ‘I want a toothpaste, but in a tablet form’. If I’d wanted to just make a new brand of toothpaste, that was very easy. You just go to a white label lab. Or if you wanted a vitamin tablet, it’s the same. But I was saying, ‘I want a vitamin tablet, but I want it to actually be a toothpaste’. So it took a long time.”
He eventually found a lab on the Gold Coast that was willing to give it a go. The first trials were a fizzer—or more accurately, weren’t. “The tabs didn’t foam up,” he says. “And we need that foaminess to spread it around the oral cavity. We had tried to use coconut oil rather than palm oil, but you couldn’t get that same effervescence you get with toothpaste.”
He also felt he needed some support on the business side of things, so sought out advice from the husband of an old uni friend, Dr Rachel Freudmann, who was working in Melbourne. “Her husband is a very good businessman, and so I was seeking advice from him initially, and then Rachel became interested in it as well, so we got together. And two brains are better than one. Because for me, the idea was the environmental side, but I just wanted to make sure that I was getting everything right for the oral hygiene as well. That’s where Rachel’s been really good.”
Not another gimmick
It took them about 18 months to get the product right. Even though the tablets give a similar mouthfeel to toothpaste, there is a chance they may prove to be a more effective delivery mechanism for the active compounds. “With toothpaste, you’re putting it in your mouth and it’s already in water. You brush around a bit, you spit it out, and actually it’s never really dissolved into your oral cavity,” he explains. “Whereas with a toothpaste tablet, you’re chewing on the tablet, and all of it is dissolved in your saliva, so your saliva levels are then boosted.”
Dr Wood’s main concern now is that the ToothChews are just seen as another gimmick targeting a gullible public. “I want this to be seen as a serious product,” he says. “I don’t want it to be seen that just because it’s environmental that’s all it is, because then I think people will think of it as too much of a gimmick.”
He’s planning to get in touch with the dental schools at Charles Sturt University in Orange and Griffith University on the Gold Coast to try and line up some clinical studies on the efficacy of the tablets. “But I strongly believe that in delivering the fluoride in tablet form, we’re actually retaining the minerals in our mouth for longer, and it’s going to be good for the teeth in that way.”
But in the meantime, he wants to encourage dentists to explore ToothChews for themselves. “To be prepared to try the product, people need to be educated,” he explains. “And the education needs to come from dentists, because that’s what we’re there for. To educate the patients.
“And some might think they’re a terrible idea and hate them, and that’s fine. Because there is an experience factor there as well. But as long as they know that they can contact me or they can look at the ingredients and see that it’s going to do the job, that’s the main thing.
“This isn’t about replacing toothpaste and saying that toothpaste is bad. It’s just saying to people who are environmentally conscious that there is something that is still going to benefit your oral hygiene, and you can still be good to the planet. It’s offering another choice. This is definitely an alternative that I’m proud of as a dentist that will help the planet and still have a benefit of oral health.”