Stick with Brushing

With environmental concerns rising, I’m always searching for ways I can do more. I am inspired by my ancestors and their relationship with the earth. November was dedicated to Native American heritage, and something as simple as changing my toothbrush allowed me to connect deeper to my Native heritage and my practices of being sustainable.

I discovered miswak sticks among the mentions of bamboo toothbrushes and coconut oil toothpastes while looking for sustainable options for oral care. The representation of this middle eastern chew-stick changed my mentality for finding sustainable products in my life. It hit me that while I was looking to my peers to find sustainable options, I needed to be looking to my ancestors who, time immemorial, have cultivated a sustainable relationship with the world. Now, for the last month, I’ve been using a chew-stick to clean my teeth.

But can a chew-stick do the job of a toothbrush? I met with IHS dentists Dr. Malan and Dr. Choi to find out. Dr. Malan and Dr. Choi pulled studies comparing chew-sticks to modern toothbrushes showing that chewsticks perform as well, and in some cases better, than toothbrushes. Dr. Choi explained that “As far as just comparing the chewing stick with a brush, I would say it’s probably comparable with a regular brushing habit because you are doing the same thing, mechanically irritating/ disrupting the plaque that’s forming” and that “It’s not just a brushing habit, but also it’s a diet, it’s a lifestyle, what you eat.” Dr. Malan pointed out that naturally occurring fluoride and antibacterial properties can be found in some chew-sticks; it just depends on the tree it comes from.

I was able to demonstrate to Dr. Malan and Dr. Choi how I make and use my chew-stick. The bark of a freshly cut stick is peeled off the very end, and a stone is used to hammer and fray the end. However, in the office we had to try a less effective method to fray the end by scraping it across a rough surface. While this worked, it was much slower. The frayed end can then be bitten a few times to make the fibers even finer for brushing.

Dr. Malan commented on the chew-stick, “That looks looks like the bristles or the little fibers are really fine so that would be pretty soft. It’s displacing that plaque and disrupting that, we call it the biofilm, and so as you disturb that, it keeps the teeth clean, keeps the bacteria from forming colonies or forming up in a group which cause decay up the road.”

Dr. Malan and Dr. Choi’s assessment of the chew-stick was that the frayed end was fine enough to complete the mechanical role of a toothbrush. When asked, Dr. Malan believes that adding toothpaste while using a chew-stick would contribute to its cleaning power and always recommends flossing.

“I’ll be definitely doing this for camping. gonna show my brothers… it’s pretty fun actually, as fun as tooth brushing can be.” -Dr. Malan

Featured image of dogwood chew stick. Photo by Jared Nally

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