Using natural products has gained immense popularity in recent years, especially as people become aware of the hazards of using lab-created chemically engineered substitutes. People are exploring the natural methods of oral hygiene and adopting the time-tested techniques used by our ancestors. Babylonians used chew sticks almost 7000 years ago. Even today, chew sticks are popular in many Afro-Asian communities.
Before toothbrushes and toothpastes were invented, people used twigs and roots of various plants and trees with medicinal properties to ensure that their teeth were well-maintained, if not sparkling white. Chew sticks increase saliva production, which acts as a natural mouthwash that rinses away bacteria and creates an inhospitable environment for them to thrive and flourish. Here are some naturally available alternatives to toothbrushes.
1. Miswak (Salvadora persica)
Common names of this tree include miswak, miswaak, siwak or sewak. The twigs of this tree are commonly used across the Middle East, North and Northeast Africa, parts of the Sahel, India, Central and Southeast Asia. Its anti-bacterial properties help control dental plaque. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended the usage of miswak because the tree has antiseptic properties and it is as effective as other oral disinfectants and anti-plaque products available today.
2. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Early European colonists noted that the native Americans used the sassafras twigs as chew sticks. The plant was called winauk by native Americans in Delaware and Virginia, and pauane by the Timucua people (native Americans, who lived in northeast and central Florida and southeast Georgia). Sassafras twigs, wood and oil have even been used in dentistry and as fire starters. Early toothbrushes were crafted from sassafras twigs or wood owing to its aromatic properties, and was also used as a dental anesthetic and disinfectant.
3. Mangosteens (Garcinia mannii)
This is a tropical forest tree whose twigs are used as chew sticks. The plants in this genus are called sap trees or mangosteens. It has been used as a chew stick for oral hygiene practice in southern Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and parts of Nigeria. It is known to prevent dental cavities and reduce long-term dental pain among people who use them regularly. The chemical constituent of this plant is aminoflavone.
4. Drumstick Tree (Cassia sieberiana)
African laburnum, also called the drumstick tree, is native to Africa. Chew sticks or toothbrushes are made from the root-wood part of the plant. The tree is popular in many parts of Africa because of its anti-microbial and medicinal uses attributed to the presence of hydrogen cyanide found throughout the tree. It also contains tannins, glycosides, saponins, steroids and astringents in the trunk, bark, and root.
5. Karanja (Pongamia pinnata)
Popularly called as Karanja, Indian Beech tree, Honge, and Pongam, this tree’s root is used as a toothbrush for oral hygiene. It makes an excellent tool for cleaning gum, teeth, and tongue. The tree’s twig is used as a toothbrush and brushing the teeth twice a day is effective in curing toothache. It is also known to strengthen the gum.
6. Neem (Azadirachta indica)
This popular tree is known around the world by many names such as Neem tree, Indian Lilac, Neeb, Margosa, and Nimbo. Its twigs have been used in India for thousands of years as a natural toothbrush. Chewing neem twigs releases its strong anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties that kill harmful bacteria, reduces inflammation, and prevents bacteria and plaque from sticking to the teeth. Its twigs are effective in curing gingivitis (gum disease) and destroying the bacteria beneath the gums that causes periodontal disease and halitosis (bad breath).
7. Babul (Vachellia nilotica)
Acacia Nilotica, Gum arabic tree, Babul, and Kikar are other common names for this tree. Tender twigs of this tree is used as a toothbrush in southeast Africa and India. Its bark and branches are extremely potent in strengthening gums, preventing gingivitis and whitening teeth. When chewed, most of the twigs fray into finer strands, which have the effect of flossing between the teeth, or if rubbed up and down, can scrub tooth enamel clean as well as any brush. However, it tastes bitter compared with commercial toothpastes.
8. Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo)
Common names include Bombay blackwood, sheesham, sissoo, Indian rosewood, and sisso. For centuries, slender sheesham twigs have been used as a chew stick and also as a tongue cleaner in various parts of India, Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan. Most of rural India still uses twigs of sheesham, meswak or neem for brushing teeth, although conventional toothbrushes are gaining popularity.
9. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice is the root and stolon parts of Glycyrrhiza glabra herb and is used in many countries since ancient times as a chew stick and as a traditional herbal remedy. Most countries across south Europe use licorice in its natural form. It is native to Eurasia, northern Africa and western Asia. It also grows in the USA and is cultivated as a crop plant in Russia, Spain and the Middle East. The root of the plant is dug up, washed, dried, and chewed as a chew stick and mouth freshener. Research suggests that licorice and its bioactive ingredients are effective in treating oral diseases.
10. Mango Tree (Mangifera indica)
Mango trees, although native to predominantly India and parts of south Asia, are grown in most tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world and its twigs make an efficient toothbrush. Even its leaves are anti-bacterial and are used as toothbrushes as they contain mangiferin, which is extremely effective in killing several types of bacteria responsible for cavities, gum disease, bad breath, dental erosion, and plaque. The mid-rib of a fresh mango leaf is removed (later used as a tongue cleaner) and the leaf is rolled tightly into a pipe with the shiny surface inside. One side is bitten off and is used as a brush.
11. Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea / Cornus florida)
Dogwoods are deciduous trees that have been used as chew sticks. The tree’s twigs were popular among native Americans, who chewed the twigs to clean and whiten their teeth. Tea made from the bark and leaves of the tree reduces fever and chills. When you chew the twig, the end of the twig softens and its fibers separate, making it a perfect brush to clean between teeth and massage the gums.
12. Jamaican Chew Stick (Gouania lupuloides)
This is a Jamaican plant from which the Jamaican chew stick is made. It is a vine with a woody stem and the locals use it as a natural method of cleaning the teeth. Its anti-bacterial and anti-cariogenic properties ensure overall dental health by replenishing important minerals to the teeth and fight against acids that causes tooth decay. The foam emitted from the tip of the stick helps to clean and whiten teeth naturally and prevents plaque and tartar formation in the mouth.
Since the chew sticks mentioned above are unique to each geographic region, you may not be able to get your hands on all of them. Select the one that you can easily obtain and chew away for that million dollar smile. You may also be able to purchase it online or get someone to ship it for you overseas. So, if you dislike using plastics, or want to adopt a natural oral hygiene technique, or simply like to go-green – whatever it is, take a pick from the list above and do your bit to avoid plastic. Chew on that!