Before the modern toothbrush existed, people cleaned their teeth by chewing on twigs–and in some parts of the world, the practice is still common. Now, a startup is trying to popularize a modern day stick-as-toothbrush in the U.S.
The small stick, called a miswak (in Arabic, it’s literally a “tooth cleaning stick”), is trimmed from a particular species of tree. The fibers happen to contain sodium bicarbonate and silica–both of which are abrasive enough to help remove stains–along with natural antiseptics, a resin that supposedly forms a protective layer over the teeth, and essential oils that can freshen breath.
“One of the main benefits is its convenience,” says Rahat Bashar, founder of Miswak Club. “The miswak can be used at any time of the day since no water or toothpaste is required. We’ve also had a lot of customers say that the main reason they use the miswak is to avoid the chemicals put in toothpaste.”
To use the stick, you have to trim the end, chew until it forms bristles, and then soak it in water to create a small brush. Every few days, you trim it again.
Some studies have found that the twigs are as effective, or possibly even more effective, than using a standard toothbrush. Still, when I asked my own dentist about it, despite the fact that she herself grew up in a Middle Eastern country where miswak was commonly used, she said she wouldn’t personally recommend it. “I would not rely on Miswak for thoroughly cleaning teeth,” she says. “I prefer a Sonicare or Braun electric toothbrush and definitely using floss.”
And would consumers want to make the switch? “There are quite a few challenges of getting an American audience to switch the way they clean their teeth,” Bashar says. “Since the toothbrush and toothpaste has been used for so long, people are less likely to change their habits.”
Still, he thinks it can appeal to customers looking for something a little more natural than plastic bristles. The twigs aren’t completely environmentally-friendly–to keep them fresh and sterile, Bashar packages them in small pen-like tubes made of plastic.
They also aren’t cheap: A single miswak last 20 days, and a package of two from Miswak Club is $14.99.