Would You Die If Someone Used Your Toothbrush?

BlogHer Original Post

Have you ever grabbed your toothbrush upon waking or before going to bed and found it moist? That's what happened to Cindy. She was right about to go to bed when she went to brush her teeth and found that someone had used her toothbrush. It wasn't immediately obvious whether it had been her husband or one of the kids, but it was very, very clear the toothbrush had been used.

This wasn't just any accidental toothbrush using, however. This one was one of the worst I've ever experienced. The offender didn't just use my toothbrush, they left -- gulp -- debris in it! Gross!

Hock, ack, urp, hurl, ouck, oaghuh. I'm sorry, but this kind of thing cannot be taken lightly.

I didn't even bother trying to approach the old whodunnit line of questioning. Nobody will ever admit to it, especially with debris left behind, so I knew it would be fruitless to even ask. So, I did the proper thing. I went out and bought a new toothbrush.

I'm not very squeamish when it comes to body fluids and don't flinch when faced with a situation where I have to share a toothbrush with my significant other, like when we moved and we couldn't find the box with the toiletries. I happened to have my travel kit handy, so that night we shared a brush. The way I see it: we swap enough spit that I'm sure whatever bacteria he has in his mouth I have in mine, too.

Obviously, I would not be so accommodating of a stranger. If I discovered a guest had used my toothbrush, I would black list them immediately. I can't imagine anything less appropriate than using someone else's toothbrush without their consent. (Not that I would give my consent if I were asked, but I do have plenty of extra toothbrushes and I am more than glad to hand them out to anyone who crosses the threshold into my home and is in need of one.)


Photo by Steven Depolo. (Flickr)

I wondered, as I read Cindy's post, whether sharing tooth brushes among family members was really a huge risk or if it was just something we had come up with because we're uneasy about body fluids, even those from people with whom we "share" said fluids all the time? I mean, if you think about it, the modern version of tooth brushing is a fairly recent thing in human history and not exactly something we took to right away. So where did the germophobia come from?

Let's go back. We know that the Egyptians used tooth powders made of a variety of ingredients including crushed ox hooves, eggshells, and pumice. The Greeks innovated the stuff with their own assortment of things: crushed bones and oyster shells. The Romans are believed to be among the first to add something to their tooth powders to improve the breath of the user. The Persians, meanwhile, knew that powders that were too abrasive could do more harm to teeth than good, and they recommended burned snail shells, verdigris, incense and powdered flint stone. But how did these cultures apply the powders? Did they use cloth? A finger? We have no clue.

We do know that in India and China, people used twigs from fragrant trees to freshen the mouth. In China, one end was sharpened to function as a tooth pick while the other was frayed until it resembled a brush. In the Muslim world, twigs of the Arak tree were similarly used -- and for good reason. Research suggests that the Arak tree (Salvadora persica) is on par with the modern toothbrush, offering both antiseptics and a considerable amount of fluoride.

Natural toothbrushes evolved over time and during the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese created one of the first known bristled toothbrushes using bamboo sticks and hair from wild boar. When traders brought the Chinese toothbrush to Europe, it was recreated with horsehair, which was found to be considerably less harsh on the gums. Despite this great development, however, the toothbrush remained a product for the upper classes. Most people simply used a toothpick after eating and applied baking soda -- if they applied anything at all -- with the finger.

It wasn't until the 19th century that toothbrushes began to be mass-produced in England. America followed suit in 1885, but adoption was slow. During World War I, for instance, so many recruits had crumbling teeth that America's dental health became a national security crisis. The military began to enforce dental hygiene as a result and by the 1940s, these good habits finally started trickling into general population, as soldiers returned home from World Ward II.

The adoption of brushing among civilians was spurred by two other things: the aggressive advertising campaign for the toothpaste Pepsodent, which propelled the product around the world in the 1930s, and the invention of nylon, which enabled the much more durable (not to mention more hygienic) nylon-bristle toothbrush to hit the market in 1938.

Of course, none of this answers the question of why the mere mention of sharing a toothbrush causes many such displeasure. I don't know, but I think it's worth noting that germ theory -- the notion that microorganisms cause disease -- started to seriously take hold at around the same time that toothbrushes began to be mass produced.

That's not to say that these concerns over sharing our brushes are invalid. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), brushing our teeth can transfer many microorganisms that are present in the mouth onto a toothbrush, so we should absolutely avoid sharing a toothbrush as much as possible.

A new toothbrush is not necessarily the safest bet, though, as toothbrushes are not required to be sold in sterile packaging. An option for people who want to reduce their risk of infection are advised to look for toothbrush sanitizers that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The ADA stresses consumer discretion in this regard, however, noting:

To "sanitize" normally means that bacteria are reduced by 99.9 percent. For example, if one million bacteria are present at the outset, 1000 bacteria remain after a 99.9 percent reduction. "Sterilized" on the other hand, indicates that all living organisms have been destroyed or inactivated. No commercially-available toothbrush cleaning products have been shown to sterilize toothbrushes. [ ... ] Claims that go beyond sanitizing the toothbrush or reducing bacterial contamination should be viewed critically by the consumer.

To keep the risk of contamination low, they suggest that one replace their toothbrush every three to four months. Rinsing with antibacterial mouthwash before brushing can also help reduce the number of microorganisms that are transferred onto the brush during use. And, of course, using soft bristles decreases the risk of injury to the gums, thereby keeping microorganisms from entering the body.

The rules of thumb are simple: after using a toothbrush, thoroughly wash it to make sure there is no toothpaste or debris left on it. If you store your toothbrush alongside others, make sure they all remain separated to prevent cross-contamination. People who are concerned about their toothbrushes being in the bathroom (not the most hygienic environment, it's true) suggest keeping brushes in sealed containers, but the American Dental Association strongly discourages this practice -- if the brush is not completely dry before it is sealed away, the moisture in the closed container will only encourage the growth of the bacteria that's present on the brush.

Before you completely freak out about how dangerously you have been living, remember that according to the ADA "there is insufficient clinical evidence to support that bacterial growth on toothbrushes will lead to specific adverse oral or systemic health effects." I’m sure they're speaking strictly about people whose immune systems are not compromised. Just the same, their guidelines are something we should implement in our routines, even those of us who aren't particularly squeamish about sharing.

Are you squeamish about sharing your toothbrush?

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex and Health on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT BlogHer.

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