I am a staunch proponent of leave no trace. I don't carry dish detergent (sand and small rocks work much better on stainless steel anyways,) and I don't use soap or shampoo, not even of the biodegradable kind (being smelly I have heard might even help with repelling mosquitos...) I do however use toothpaste, and am feeling pretty bad about it, since I leave a chemical behind in the wilderness. When I spit out my toothpaste, I attempt to spray it over a large area, to avoid creating concentrations of the chemical, and I avoid leaving it behind on fragile vegetation, but I would like to find an alternative that adheres more to the leave no trace philosophy. What are my options without sacrificing the health of my teeth on those multi-week treks?

  • 2
    Spit into a ziploc and carry it out?
    – jmn
    Sep 1, 2015 at 6:09
  • 1
    I don't use toothpaste in the backcountry, just water and the brush, you can chew fluoride gum after if you're worried about your teeth getting brittle and crumbling after only a couple weeks.
    – ShemSeger
    Sep 1, 2015 at 14:25
  • 3
    @MichaelMartinez On topic, it's why I like the baking soda approach. It's effective (as a dental cleaner), it's very environmentally friendly, it's light, and it's multipurpose.
    – Eric
    Sep 1, 2015 at 20:03
  • 11
    It's all about balance and being reasonable. I personally abhor the idea of leaving trash (plastic containers, bags, beer cans, etc.) in the wilderness. But I don't see any problem at all things that basically are biodegradable/edibles/etc. Sep 1, 2015 at 22:22
  • 1
    @Frisbee: This might be better to do in chat? But to answer your question: we eat out of the pot, which gets heated and therefore sanitized.
    – DudeOnRock
    Sep 2, 2015 at 16:13

12 Answers 12


Even for "multi-week" trips, brushing with water alone is not going to compromise your tooth health. The abrasive action of the brush does most of the work, and missing the flouride hit for a few days won't affect your teeth in the least. Plus, it saves weight. So, the best LNT option: don't use it.

If you MUST use toothpaste (or an alternative), try a few of these options:

  1. Swallow it - pick up a toothpaste made for babies and children made with the explicit understanding it will be swallowed. (Even regular toothpaste says, "do not swallow more than used for brushing" which seems to indicate it won't hurt...)
  2. Pack it out - If you are truly leaving no trace, then you are packing out your poop too right? So coordinate your tooth brushing with other trace-forming activities.
  3. Spray it - The "broadcast spray" method has long been championed whereby you spew the toothpaste out in a fine mist so there is no "blob" of toothpaste to attract hungry critters. It does spread the smell, so do this FAR away from camp in bear country.
  4. Dilute it - in some areas, the recommended method is to spit normally, then urinate on it so there is not a large gobble-worthy glob for some critter to munch on.

And remember, even if you are using baking soda, or other "natural" alternatives, these still need to be dealt with properly using one of the above methods. It is pretty gross to arrive in a well-camped area and see white minty smears on all the vegetation regardless of whether it's "natural" or not.

  • 4
    It's certainly your position to have, but I don't see a scientifically sound reason to a gram of baking soda spit into the dirt and mixed up with your foot as something bad. Rain water is a weak acid that quickly hastens the breakdown of sodium bicarbonate; it's just not empirically relevant in even a high traffic area.
    – Eric
    Sep 1, 2015 at 14:07
  • 2
    Whoa, look who finally crawled back out of the woods, where have you been @LBell?
    – ShemSeger
    Sep 1, 2015 at 14:20
  • 1
    @radpin It's not "something bad" but it is "a trace" which we are trying to leave none of ;). And, until it rains even baking soda will leave a white smear if not properly delt with.
    – Lost
    Sep 1, 2015 at 14:25
  • @ShemSeger Ha! Haven't needed to procrastinate in a while...
    – Lost
    Sep 1, 2015 at 14:26
  • 10
    +1 "abrasive action of the brush does most of the work", most people don't know or forget this.
    – Roflo
    Sep 1, 2015 at 15:28

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). It's naturally occurring, and to get a level of toxicity to animals you would need to get to 450mg per liter. Unless you're operating a mine or using literally tons of the stuff, it's quite safe and you'll never get near that. From a 2008 USGS study:

Chronic toxicity was observed at concentrations that ranged from 450 to 800mg NaHCO3/L (also defined as 430 to 657 mg HCO3-/L or total alkalinity expressed as 354 to 539 mg CaCO3/L) and the specific concentration depended on the sensitivity of the four species of invertebrates and fish exposed.

At temperatures around 100f, it rapidly disolves into sodium carbonate, carbon dioxide, and water. And that's without interaction from other chemicals, which will happen naturally, and hasten the decomposition (especially any acid). Rain water is generally acidic, so rain in any quantity breaks down baking soda very quickly (like in minutes).

Specifically related to teeth cleaning, a 2008 study had this to say:

The collective results from the five controlled clinical studies on over 270 subjects reported in this paper, consistently demonstrate that Arm & Hammer baking soda dentifrices enhanced plaque removal effectiveness of tooth brushing to a significantly greater extent than the non-baking soda dentifrice products.

Another study of the same year and in the same journal states:

The results of this study indicate that the baking soda dentifrice was more effective than the non-baking soda, antimicrobial dentifrice in plaque removal after a single tooth brushing, and in maintaining significantly lower plaque levels during a four-week period of twice daily, unsupervised tooth brushing.

Sodium bicarbonate always works as a dish cleaner and antacid. I take a few ounces with me on every trip to cover all those bases.

For tooth brushing, just wet your tooth brush, put a small pile on the bristles, and go to town. It doesn't taste the best, but you get used to it.

  • 2
    Nitpicking a bit here, but the thermal decomposition of sodium bicarbonate won't actually make it any less harmful to the environment. (In fact, sodium carbonate might potentially be a bit more harmful, being more strongly alkaline.) But yes, NaHCO3 is pretty harmless stuff unless you start dumping it out by the bucketload (in which case the biggest issue is likely that you may locally raise the soil / water pH and sodium content). Sep 1, 2015 at 14:12
  • 1
    @IlmariKaronen rain water is generally slightly acidic; the breakdown in a natural environment is going to be ridiculously fast, and we're talking about amounts in the 1g range. The study referenced above puts that toxicity at 430 backpackers spitting their toothpaste, if all of it was spit out, into 1 liter of water, and then getting to toxicity.
    – Eric
    Sep 1, 2015 at 14:16
  • Sure, I was just trying to point out that the thermal decomposition reaction you mention is pretty much a red herring. There's really no need to even mention it. It's relevant if you're using the sodium bicarbonate to bake bread, sure, but not if you're spitting it out onto soil. Sep 1, 2015 at 14:26

There are some alternatives of toothpaste in ancient India as a part of YOGA.

Try Teeth cleaning twig : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teeth_cleaning_twig


The Sanskrit word danta means ‘teeth’, dhauti means ‘wash’ and moola means ‘root’. Therefore this practice is concerned with cleaning the teeth and gums.

neem tree toothbrush


In India today the traditional method of cleaning the teeth is by means of a twig from a neem tree. The twig is usually about fifteen centimetres long and half a centimetre thick and it has good alkaline and astringent properties. The end of the stick is chewed until it forms bristles. These are then used to brush the teeth and gums. Both chewing the end of the stick and using it as a brush makes the teeth and gums strong and clean. After use the stick is thrown away.

This method is probably impractical for most people. If this is the case, then use a soft bristled brush to clean the teeth and try to clean the brush as often as possible. The gums should be cleaned with the index finger making a hard, rubbing motion over both the inner and outer gums. You should try to clean your teeth at least twice every day, and even better after each meal.


The important qualities of a dentifrice are that it is sufficiently abrasive to remove ingrained stains on the teeth, germicidal to destroy bacteria, as well as being able to wash the teeth and gums.

The ancient yogis always made their own tooth powder out of catechu, alum, myrobalan and the ash of burnt coconut shells in the proportion 1:6:1:2. However, these substances are not readily available and so most of us will have to stick with the toothpastes of today, the best of which are generally available at ayurvedic pharmacies, health and macrobiotic food stores. Additionally, some excellent dentifrices are wood ash or lemon juice which can be applied on a brush, or the rind of a lemon which can be rubbed up and down on the teeth and gums. This is a particularly good method of removing tarnish from the teeth.

Source : http://www.tranquilitytraining.com/2010/hatha-yoga-danta-dhauti/

Interesting Blog: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/06/verdict-on-neem-chew-stick-toothbrushes/

Also read this: eco-friendly-toothbrush

  • 1
    Fascinating read! Thank you for adding this; I learned something today. :o) Aug 1, 2017 at 19:42
  • @Jonathan Landrum You're welcome, This is ancient method of cleaning the teeth, widely used by significant Indians still today. Aug 2, 2017 at 7:15

You can also use Miswak, then you don't need to cary a tooth paste along but still have medicinal benefits, instead of having to use just a toothbrush with only water (although there is no harm in that either).

The miswak (miswaak, siwak, sewak, Arabic: سواك‎ or مسواك) is a teeth cleaning twig made from the Salvadora persica tree (known as arak in Arabic). A traditional and natural alternative to the modern toothbrush, it has a long, well-documented history and is reputed for its medicinal benefits.

That way you leave no trace. Only some tiny bristles might be left over which themselves are from a tree so they cant be harmful for other trees.


Brush without paste. You do not need toothpaste. You get the minty freshness, you get fluoride, you get additional abrasion, but none of those things are essential. Brushing is far more important than the toothpaste. I've been told by multiple dentists that although toothpaste can be helpful, it is completely unnecessary (you can get the fluoride from other sources, and it is not something your teeth need twice a day). Unless you're living outdoors permanently, your teeth will be fine with brushing and rinsing alone for a few weeks, easily.

Additionally, rinse with hydrogen peroxide a couple times a week. You could do it daily while camping if you wanted to. This was also advice given to me from a dentist. When used, hydrogen peroxide breaks down into oxygen and water, so it would be safe to spit out in the wild without leaving crazy chemicals everywhere. It is not used for teeth whitening, which is a common misunderstanding, but the hydrogen peroxide rinse is used to kill the bacteria in your mouth that lead to tooth decay, in case there is any left behind after brushing.


I prepare my toothpaste using this recipe, main ingredients here being baking soda and coconut oil. Positive parts: it works just as well as "classical" toothpaste, it is safer to swallow, ingredients are natural. Negative parts: it has a more fluid consistence, needs a somewhat heavier container to carry it around.


I would look into OraWellness. It's a mix of essential oils that comes in a very small bottle, so it's nice and compact. You also only need 2-3 drops per use and works so well I can sometimes skip a cleaning or just use water as needed. The "fuzz" or plaque we accumulate on our teeth is delayed when using this. I tried this almost 1.5 years ago and it has completely replaced conventional toothpaste for me. It's a little pricey but its natural, light, effective and damn good.


Because Toothpaste is nothing else than some kind of polish, you could use precipitate chalk. Or just brush with water. For the fresh feeling just chew some spearmint leaves.


You could use "toothy tabs" tablets, sold by lush. The tablets are solid toothpaste. They consist chiefly of kaolinite, baking soda, and essential oils. Besides being non-toxic and biodegradable, they are also lightweight, small, and the packaging is plastic-free.

If you want to be 100% certain, you could just use baking soda or make your own tooth powder. Quoted from "trash backwards":

2 tablespoons Baking Soda

2 pipette stoppers-ful of liquid stevia (liquid stevia comes in glass jars with stoppers)

1/4 teaspoon organic peppermint flavor (It’s a combination of sunflower oil and peppermint oil)

1/8 teaspoon organic mint extract

I suspect that even many conventional toothpastes do no harm to the environment (safe for their packaging). However, some contain "microbeads", tiny plastic balls that never rot and accumulate in plants and animals.


I agree mostly with LBell's answer: just using water to dislodge food debris is enough! However, I felt I should write against

Dilute it - in some areas, the recommended method is to spit normally, then urinate on it so there is not a large gobble-worthy glob for some critter to munch on.

Mammals, especially deer and goats, seek out the smell of ammonia because they source their salt from urine. I would recommend against mixing toothpaste with pee because it increases the chances of it being ingested! The best place to pee is on a rock face so that animals don't dig plants at their base and disturb soil in general.


Stefansson proved once and for all that diet affects teeth more than brushing. His experiences with the Arctic Inuit were published in Harper's Magazine in 1935, but are also available here in three parts: I, II, III.

It's arguably the upside-down food pyramid that is responsible for lining dentists' pockets today.

Starch gunks up one's teeth and gets fermented to acid. If you're eating mostly meat and vegetables, brush with a little water and you should have no issues. It's the grains that bite.

Many indigenous people who never brush their teeth also never get tooth decay

  • Dogs don't leave toothpaste anywhere :)
    – user8455
    Dec 24, 2015 at 12:02

Floss. If you brush with water only and then floss, your teeth and gums will be OK for even a multi-week trip. The dentist of @Henning advises flossing first, then brushing because "the dirt that you floss out from between the teeth is highly aggressive stuff that shouldn't remain on them." Thus I suggest a vigorous brushing, then flossing, then a light brushing.

Pack out your floss! Maybe add a pack of peppermints for a cleaner feel.

  • 1
    my dentist strongly advised against flossing after brushing your teeth, because the dirt that you floss out from between the teeth is highly aggressive stuff that shouldn't remain on them. Sep 7, 2015 at 12:08
  • 1
    @henning Interesting. Floss first, then brush?
    – ab2
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:21
  • yes, that's what she advised. Sep 8, 2015 at 6:08

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.