(Updated October 23, 2017)
Regular dental floss is just waxed nylon, rolled up in a small plastic box. Just like plastic, nylon is derived from crude oil. Unlike plastic, it does not take 500 to thousands of years to decompose, but "only" 50 - 80 years. #notimpressed Pretty much everybody who is interested in Zero Waste knows about bamboo toothbrushes, tooth powder and homemade toothpaste. However, when it comes to dental floss most of us are at a loss.
Let me cut to the chase. If you are searching for a completely cruelty-free option, well, there is none. Well, at least not the way I see it, because I personally don't think it is ethically correct to label plastics as "cruelty-free".
Your options are either
- Compostable, nylon- and plastic-free silk floss. Not cruelty-free because silk worms are boiled alive in the silk manufacturing process, or
- Nylon floss without the plastic case. A thread of nylon is extremely tear-proof! Here is one gruesome example of a seal caught in some tear-proof threads.
So here are your options, yay...
Silk Floss (Radius)
Radius is probably the best-known brand and can be found in health food stores across the UK and North America. You can find them at Whole Foods and other health food stores. However, even though they seem to love to advertise how "Good for the earth" their floss is ("Not only is our floss 100% vegetarian, it’s also 100% biodegradable"), they still don't mind putting their floss into a plastic case. On the package I could find information on the floss (biodegradable in 60 - 90 days), on the paper packaging (recyclable), but none whatsoever on the plastic container. As if it didn't exist.
They also sell their floss in sachets, which I fand rather wasteful. I wasn't able to open the package to check as to what kind of material the sachets themselves are made of. Seems like the sachets themselves are plastic-free, at least I remember something on the packaging stating "100% biodegradable packaging". Still, not impressed.
Compared to regular floss it is quite expensive, with 30 m for £3.90 at Whole Foods UK ($5.12 US), but OK when you think about the fact that it's silk, a material generally more on the expensive side.
Radius also sells vegan floss made from regular nylon in a plastic case, so there is no real gain compared to regular floss.
Silk floss with beeswax (Vömel)
If you live in Europe and are on the lookout for a completely plastic-free floss that does not have to be shipped from overseas, this is it.
Vömel is a German manufacturer selling plastic-free silk floss coated with beeswax. The floss is either sold in a tiny, yet very classy vial or as refills in small paper bags. Most zero waste bulk stores in Germany carry it, but you can also order it online, e.g. at my favorite plastic-free online store monomeer.de or the Zero Waste online store Zero Waste Laden, opened by the Zero Waste Blogger Olga and her husband Gregor. Zero Waster and British TV presenter Kate Arnell bought the same floss from a Spanish plastic free online shop Sin Plástico, as she explains in her Non-Toxic + Zero Waste Personal Care youtube video.
The floss itself is a bit pricey. 10 m with vial cost 3.95 € (= £3.14 or $4.46 US). 2 x 10 m without the vial are 4.90 € (£3.89 or 5.53 US$).
Silk floss with (vegan) candellila wax (Dental Lace)
If you live in North America and are looking for a plastic-free silk floss, give Dental Lace a try. They are based in Maine in the USA, and I appreciate that they coat their floss in vegan candellila wax instead of beeswax. It doesn't make the floss completely vegan, obviously, but at least it shows that they do try to minimize the impact.
Dental Lace is a lot more affordable than the Vömel floss that we used to use back in Germany! It is only $7 (US) + taxes for 66 yards (= 60m) + the glass vial. The refills are only $5.70 (US) + taxes for 66 yards. The same amount of Vömel floss costs 14.70 € (=$17.30, taxes included)!
If your local health food store doesn't carry it, don't be shy, ask them to! I have even heard that this floss has been spotted in a bulk store in Australia!
Unravel a piece of silk fabric
Béa Johnson's go-to method, is to unravel a piece of silk fabric, twisting a couple of threads together, and to use that to floss.
Update: I was just told that there is at least one producer of "peace silk" who lets the silk worms hatch!
So if you can get your hands on a piece of peace silk, that might be a very eco-friendly option that might or might not count as vegan, also depending on your motivation for being vegan.
Update Oct 24, 2017: "Peace" silk isn't as cruelty-free as it sounds if you learn about the whole process. Yes, the caterpillars are allowed to hatch, emerging as moths. However, due to thousands of years of domestication, the moths cannot fly despite having wings, are blind, and cannot eat because they have no mouthes. They only live long enough to mate and to lay eggs, which translates to only a few days. Each female will lay an average of 500 eggs. This new generation will not be fed, as the population—metaphorically—explodes. Because silk worms are so highly domesticated, they cannot survive without humans feeding them under very careful conditions. So instead of killing one caterpillar in its cocoon, around 200-300 embryos or hatchling silkworms will die a slow death of starvation later. Read more here.
Vegan floss without a plastic case (Ecodent)
I contacted Ecodent a couple of months ago, because I couldn't find any information on the material and whether or not their floss was biodegradable. Their live-chat customer service agent was unable to answer my question, and when the reply to my email arrived, what it said was: "We have not tested the floss for the amount of time it would take to biodegrade but I did find online that dental floss can decompose in 1-5 years." Um, right...
So I googled "How long does it take for dental floss to decompose." The very first hit said 1-5 years in the preview. I clicked on the link, that led me to some handout for some summer camp. Right in the list it also said a plastic bag needs only 20-40 years to decompose, instead of the usual number in the hundreds. Somebody really went out of their way to find some reliable information.
Well, it is true that they use cardboard packaging, don't have a plastic case, and provide 100 yards (91.44 m), but they failed to mention that there is another plastic wrapper inside the cardboard packaging, and that there is also 2 plastic stickers on the outside.
At least it is really affordable with only 5.49 US$ for 100 yards (= 91.44m).
So what is the right decision when you live vegan and zero waste?
I'm afraid there is no right answer to that question. It's the choice between boiling silk worms alive or something derived from crude oil that might also end up strangling animals. Great.
I have tried cotton threads, but they tear really easily, even when you twist multiple threads together. I have really thick hair, so I also tried flossing with hair. Pre-historically humans are said to have used horse hair to floss their teeth. When you think about it, it is not really more absurd than using fibres that came out of a worm, coated in bee discharge to floss... Unfortunately, hair didn't work for me at all because my hairs would tear so easily I couldn't even get them in between my teeth.
In the end, it was this photo that made me choose silk floss. Nylon threads look so benign, but they are tear-proof, which is a huge problem.
(More here 😢)
We had been using Vömel silk floss and composted it in our very own worm bin along with our kitchen scraps for more than two years. It was very important to us to know the floss was compostable and, most importantly, where the floss would end up. The sad truth is that even if you dispose of your trash properly, it can still end up in the ocean.
We switched to Dental Lace a few weeks ago because we live in Canada at the moment. Our local zero waste refill shop the Soap Dispensary even stocked Dental Lace floss after I told them about it.
However, we still hope that one day innovation will give birth to a compostable or at least fully biodegradable* vegan option.
Interestingly, I have been contacted by a person telling me that they would soon get their hands on floss made from corn starch based bioplastics. No company name, no more information, just asking if I was interested in their product.I asked them for more information, but haven't received a reply (yet?). That was two weeks ago.
Luckily, I know of at least one (credible!) company that is working on it, so fingers crossed!
*Please note that plastics do "decompose" after a couple of centuries or a millennium, but this means the plastic items will only break down into smaller and smaller pieces (= microplastics). Usually, when I use "biodegradable", I am talking about about a desintegration on a molecular level into components that are not harmful anymore.