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Leave No Trace Toothbrushing

Karen, a Leave No Trace Master Educator, brushing her teeth on the Appalachian Trail
Karen, a Leave No Trace Master Educator, brushing her teeth on the Appalachian Trail

Maintaining dental hygiene is just as important when backpacking and camping as it is at home. But the question arises, what’s the best way to practice leave no trace toothbrushing and rinse out the toothpaste in your mouth after your brush? My answer may surprise you.

Swallow It!

While many leave no trace practitioners advocate “broadcasting” your tooth-brushing wastewater by spraying it into the woods by blowing it out your mouth to disperse it, or burying it in a cathole, I’ve found the easiest and simplest method is simply to swallow it.

At home, many of us squeeze a glob of toothpaste onto our toothbrush which generates a lot of foam and requires several rinses to clear out of your mouth. But you don’t need to use that much toothpaste and a tiny dab applied to  a dry toothbrush will do the trick just as well, stimulating your gums and freshening your breath. There’s also no need to rinse out your mouth after using such a small amount of toothpaste or tooth powder and you can just swallow the residue without ill effect.

If the thought of swallowing fluoride toothpaste, even in very small quantities, doesn’t appeal to you, then try baking soda, which also makes an excellent toothpaste (in powder form), and can be easily digested.

The Numbers Game

Is it really worth sweating over a tiny detail like Leave No Trace tooth brushing on a backpacking or camping trip? It is if you hike in an area that receives heavy use like the Appalachian Trail and many of our National Forests and Parks. While the actions of one person at a shelter or campsite might have little impact on the local wildlife, when you multiply the impact of toothbrushing a thousandfold in a small area, the amount of soapy wastewater spit out by visitors really adds up.

But practicing leave no trace toothbrushing is a choice. Leave No Trace isn’t a set of RULES that you must adhere to, but a set of guidelines that you can choose to follow or not. The choice is up to you.

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23 comments

  1. There’s always baby toothpaste, which is fluoride-free and meant to be swallowed.

  2. Just make sure your Toothpaste is one of those which you can swallow..Or maybe you may want to use what the Native Americans used…Willow Branches with the ends frayed like a brush. Has a bit of whitening ingredient in as a bonus. Salaciyn acid, I know I spelled that wrong but it is the same stuff they make aspirin out of.

  3. You can swallow all brands of toothpaste in small quantities, especially those that recommend that you don’t rinse afterwards like sensodyne. I do it every day. Twice a day.

  4. Did the same thing at the BSA philmont scout ranch. Just took a bit of mind over matter to swallow after you have been told your whole life to spit! You stay minty fresh for hours…

  5. Brushing is one of the few LNT things that I don’t follow the rules on. The one thing I have always heard is that you should spit toothpaste on to a large rock if you can. That way when it dries an animal can lick it off the rock instead of having to tear through soil.

    Also, if you swallow your toothpaste it will probably take a lot longer for the smell to fade, and in bear country I generally brush my teeth well before I go to bed to make sure the smell has faded.

    I seriously doubt I could ever convince my wife to swallow her toothpaste, but if anyone has any better suggestions about this I’d be willing to try.

  6. Swallowing fluoride is not safe. It tends to cause calcium to precipitate into your blood stream. I brush my teeth with Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and do not swallow. Even toothpaste that does not have fluoride has a lot of nasty stuff in it. I tried baking soda for a while, but it will eventually remove the enamel coating from your teeth, so it is not a good option for daily use. Maybe the Indians had it right all along!

  7. If I swallowed my toothpaste I would leave a trace of throw up, which I’m going to guess is worse than some spit with a little Tom’s of Maine in it.

  8. As you mentioned, most of us use too much toothpaste and realistically, toothpaste is mostly used to make your mouth feel good. It is the brushing action that removes plaque (biofilm). You could swish a huge amount of toothpaste in your mouth, but it wouldn’t remove plaque–you have to brush/scrape it off using a toothbrush and floss. Toothpaste gives us a “minty-fresh” feeling. The 2 options that I suggest when camping/backpacking, are: #1 use a small amount of toothpaste (just enough to give you that clean feel), or, even better, #2 use a drop of natural peppermint oil on your toothbrush and brush as usual. Minty fresh, without the chemicals that sometime are found in toothpaste.

  9. I prefer a different solution — activated charcoal. It can be purchased from a variety of sources in capsule form, which is ridiculously convenient for backpacking! I break open one capsule and brush my teeth with the contents.

    Charcoal is an absorbing agent, it absorbs bacteria and other toxins from your mouth. The grit appears to be gentle enough to polish the teeth without harming enamel. My teeth and mouth turn black while you are using it — which could make a good practical joke! The carbon rinses clean, and my mouth feels quite pleasant afterwards. Cosmetically there seems to be evidence that charcoal whitens teeth. Unlike toothpaste or baking soda, rinsing out the charcoal is essentially inconsequential to the environment. Should one want to be exceedingly particular, it is possible to find activated charcoal made specifically from coconut shell.

    Should one want to go as far as swallowing activated charcoal, it is safe — it is an over the counter medicine used to absorb poisons in the digestive tract and treat stomach maladies. When I was in Asia, I noticed that activated charcoal was a staple of most Japanese homes — as common as ibuprofen is here. However, it may not be the best course of action while backpacking. Charcoal can also absorb beneficial material in the GI tract such as water, nutrients and oral medications. If you must swallow it, plan on increasing your water intake. If you use oral medications, online dosing guides indicate that the interactions can be minimized by ingesting the meds 1 hour before, or 2-3 hours after swallowing the charcoal.

  10. and then… the mind blowing revelation that we don’t need toothpaste. Ask your dentist, brushing with water and toothbrush is god enough. The toothpaste foam is for mint fresh breath, and soap loosens debris, but not required. Just brush with water. it’s fine. you will be OK.
    PS: You are brave to broach the topic of swallowing. Most have strong feelings on the subject.

  11. Baking soda. You don’t need much. It doesn’t smell. It doesn’t interfere with absorption of medicines, unlike activated charcoal. It’s astoundingly cheap per use.

    Hmmm. I wonder if a sachet of baking soda in the Esbit cube bag would keep the Esbit cube stink down – currently even double bagging with freezer bags is not 100% efficacious against the smell escaping.

    • Not sure on using baking soda on keeping the esbit smell down, but my guess is you would have to use more than you would probably prefer to carry (in weight) to really help much. In the past when I used Esbit, I just kept it well wrapped in an outside pack pocket, away from any food. Loved the idea of esbit, but did not appreciate those toxic odors!

  12. Sometimes, I rinse and spit… or swallow… or dry brush. I guess I’ve never given it much thought. I will consider this. I do know that if I don’t brush, I’m certainly not “leave no trace” for those in the area!

  13. I’m with BPL guy…I don’t bother with the toothpaste. At home, I use toothpaste mostly at my wife’s beckoning, because she won’t kiss me without it! But when she’s not around or I am in the woods, toothpaste/powder/baking soda/salt, etc, is one less thing to worry about, to pack or have to deal with LNT.

    I find the most satisfying “refreshing” feeling I get is actually from the toothbrush itself, not the dentifrice. To feel my teeth smooth and clean from gunky build-up is the most enjoyable part for me.

    I recall having read somewhere that brushing your teeth too soon after a meal can interfere with full digestion. Something to do with the enzymes in your saliva and brushing can rinse out the saliva. I do notice I much prefer savoring the flavors of the tasty meal I just had much more than the flavor of cool mint from toothpaste.

    I have noticed over the years that if I brush my teeth before going to bed using toothpaste, I have a horrible taste in my mouth in the morning. Doesn’t seem to matter what kind of toothpaste I use, anything flavored leaves a lovely taste in my mouth upon going to bed but not so in the morning. If I brush without toothpaste or simply skip brushing my teeth at all that night, I don’t have a horrible taste in my mouth when I wake up.

  14. I use baking soda. It cleans better than brushing alone and helps protect teeth against the acids the oral bacteria produce. On a short trip (1-2 wk) the presence or absence of fluoride will not make a huge difference. Those who use fluoride toothpaste will simply restart when they get home. Those that don’t, won’t.

  15. When I am forced to travel in places where ther is high concentration of people on short 3 to 4 night hikes I carry a wag bag. I spit in it. Nothing looks worse than seeing fall leaves with toothpaste on them. Any more nights than that is not likely to be where I likes to see folks.

  16. Grannyhiker aka MaryDee

    Plain old baking soda works fine for me! Dentist recommended, too! If you must spit, it’s invisible!

  17. Yeah, I agree with BPL Guy. You don’t need toothpaste.

  18. Astronauts and cosmonauts have been swallowing their toothpaste for years.

  19. Food grade diatomaceous earth. It is very light weight, and fairly cheap. It has many uses, one of which is a polishing agent. I wouldn’t advocate it for prolonged yearly usage as toothpaste as it is very jagged on a microscopic level and over time may erode enamel. But limited use would be fine. I personally eat a little d.e. everyday, as it also acts as a filter media for the blood stream, as well as giving off an enzyme that is detrimental to intestinal parasites when digested.

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