At this point in my zero waste journey, I’ve managed to find a sustainable swap for most of the products I use, with one notable exception: my dental routine. Like any good zero waster, I started my journey off with a DIY toothpaste recipe (it was disgusting) then moved on to using toothpaste sold in recyclable glass jars and tested out silk dental floss. I was satisfied with my regimen until I started experiencing sensitivity in one of my teeth. I figured I had a cavity, so I scheduled an appointment with a dentist.

Now, I’ve got to make a somewhat embarrassing confession. It had been a long time since I’d gone to a dentist, long enough that I couldn’t remember what year of college I was in when I went (oh and I graduated in 2014 so 5 years ago at least). I figured that I should bring my toothpaste and essential oils-based mouthwash to the dentist to see if he signed off on them. Well, after finding more than 8 cavities my dentist told me that the products I was using were not cutting it. I ended up having to go the dentist four more times for fillings and would have paid more than $2,000 out of pocket if I didn’t have dental insurance through work (I still ended up paying about $600 over the course of two months). I realized that while I tout that health comes before zero waste, I had embraced products with little to no scientific backing and could have had far worse consequences if I hadn’t made some changes.

So, here’s what my not-so-zero-waste oral hygiene regime looks like these days:

My not so zero waste dental products

Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste: I now use Tom’s of Maine toothpaste (always with fluoride) because the tubes can be recycled through TerraCycle. I’m pretty annoyed that toothpaste in more sustainable packaging (like glass) never comes with fluoride. I don’t know why there’s so much controversy around fluoride, but I for one don’t plan on going to the dentist four times in 6 weeks ever again.

Waterpik: I think we can all agree that flossing is the worst. I don’t do it enough, so when I do take up flossing my gums bleed, so then I put it off again — resulting in a vicious cycle. I’ve found silk floss is painful and doesn’t fit well between my teeth, so I purchased a waterpik to keep my gums healthy. While the waterpik will ultimately go to the landfill, this is one area where I am choosing health over zero waste.

Conventional mouth wash: I was using a essential oils blend for mouthwash, but now I’m back to traditional mouthwash. I look for the largest bottle so that I can purchase it less frequently. I’ve seen some formulas in glass bottles and DIY recipes, but this experience has reminded me to be skeptical about recommendations that aren’t backed by science. I asked my friend who is a dentist what her thoughts on what I should look for in a mouthwash. Her answer was, of course, nuanced. Different ingredients will target different needs, but she wasn’t aware of any benefits of essential oils for mouthwash (other than freshening breath). I now look for the ADA logo on everything I buy to make sure I’m not wasting my money on a product that won’t do anything.

Bamboo Toothbrush: I was using a plastic toothbrush again but when I needed to replace my toothbrush a few weeks ago I went back to bamboo. This was the product my dentist was least skeptical about, so I’m going to continue to use bamboo toothbrushes until I’m told to do otherwise.

Going through this experience was eye-opening and embarrassing. I could have been in a place of serious financial danger if my employer didn’t provide dental insurance and I couldn’t spread appointments across pay periods. I hate to think that my recommendations for fluoride-free products could negatively impact someone else’s dental health. So if you’re going to take anything away from this, be skeptical of what you see online. Ask questions about why a product is considered effective, don’t fall prey to “chemical-free” and other fear mongering language. Talk to your doctor or dentist before making significant changes that could impact your health, don’t just blindly listen to a blogger (myself included).

And if you need to use medicines or other personal care products that wouldn’t show up in the Package Free Shop, don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep in mind what Anne Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, said “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”