They form a part of our daily routine. Twice a day, morning and night, for two minutes, they help clean our teeth and keep our mouths fit and healthy.
Despite this, the shelf-life of a toothbrush is a relatively short one – in theory we should only use them 180 times and for a total of just six hours over a period of three months.
So, just what happens to them after their short but useful lives hanging around the bathroom sink, when the bristles are worn down and they have fulfilled their primary purpose?
A new nationwide study conducted by the British Dental Health Foundation has attempted to discover the answers, unearthing some of the inventive, unusual and more bizarre uses for our old toothbrushes.
Carried out by the UK’s largest oral health charity, in conjuncture with the 35th anniversary of National Smile Month, the survey questioned more than 1,000 people throughout the UK in order to try and provide an insight into some of the UK’s oral health habits and routines. Results showed that more than four in every five people use their old toothbrush for an alternative purpose, so what were the findings?
The survey revealed that scrubbing bathroom tiles was the top use for an old toothbrush, with four out of every ten people, making it by far the most popular activity.
In fact, cleaning – not surprisingly – was found to be a common theme. Almost a third (28%) of people use their past toothbrushes to assist in cleaning various kitchen appliances, more than a quarter (26%) to give an extra glimmer to their jewellery and roughly one in every five (18%) use the oral hygiene product to shine their shoes.
Other answers included cleaning bikes, computer keyboards, toilets and toilets seats, fish tanks and finger nails. A clean sweep all-round!
These findings are far from surprising, however, as the design and composition of a toothbrush makes for a natural cleaning tool.
Old toothbrushes are often the ideal size to fit into those awkward cracks and crevasses that other cleaning devices simply cannot. They are compact and tough to help stain removal while the long nimble bristles can effectively clean ridged objects, such as skirting boards or help to shake off dust from delicate ornaments – the perfect little workmate.
Results from the comprehensive survey found that the age of the owner plays a significant part in what happens to a toothbrush after it is too old to care for the teeth and gums.
People over 75 are three times more likely to re-use their toothbrush for a different purpose than those between the ages of 16 and 34 and twice more likely than those between 35 and 44.
Additionally, women are a third more likely to re-use their toothbrush for chores and other uses than their male counterparts.
Combing eyebrows, dusting archaeological artefacts, children’s painting and other various art projects also featured in what people do with an old toothbrush, while more cleaning alternatives included taps and plugholes, tools, silverware, car batteries and wheels, football boots and bird cages.
Chief executive of the Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, agrees that just because a toothbrush gets too old to look after a person’s oral health is it does not mean it cannot be used in other, more inventive ways.
Dr Carter says: ‘A toothbrush is able to perform many functions around the home after it’s time cleaning teeth and gums are over. The survey has shown that people realise that a toothbrush has a value and role to play beyond their oral health and has thrown up some really creative and imaginative uses alongside those more customary ones.
‘I would have expected bathroom tiles to be among the top answers, along with other delicate cleaning uses. To maintain a good level of oral health I always advise having a toothbrush with medium textured bristles, as the hard ones may cause gum recession, however, even the medium and softer compounds are a perfect to thwart any unsightly dirt or grime.
‘More and more toothbrushes now have ‘end-rounded’, nylon bristles, which have been preferable to natural bristles for some time due to better quality and size control. Again, this is ideal for any cleaning use as the composition slightly changes when wet to make the brush potentially cleaner – so it will not pick up any dirt from one area to simply spread it to another.
‘The grip of the handle is another factor which makes the toothbrush a formidable cleaning tool. Unlike scouring pads, or something of a similar ilk, which can be tricky to get a hold of, particularly when wet, the toothbrush’s handle should be comfortable to hold, with some kind of grip facility.
‘Additionally, and I think this is why most people choose to use their old toothbrushes for chores such as cleaning bathroom tiles, is that the bristle when wet and applied with pressure are flattened. This means it, again unlike a scouring pad, will not scratch your tiles, or rub off any grouting.
‘Like many, I myself use an old toothbrush for odd jobs and find there’s no better tool.’
From women who admit to using an old toothbrush to apply hair dye to those who use the brush as a hair chopstick and men who choose to use it to clean the dog’s teeth or give the golf clubs a sharp polish.
There were also people in the survey that oddly admitted to collecting toothbrushes. It may have some way to go as a pastime to overtake more traditional collectable items like stamps or marbles, though the evolution the toothbrush has undergone it could claim to warrant such an activity.
In fact, one museum in Hertford holds a collection of 6,000-strong toothbrushes – the largest in the country which dates from the 18th to the late 20th century.
This is not the first time toothbrushes have attracted rather odd headlines either.
In a past Dental Health survey by the Foundation the question was asked whether or not anyone would be happy sharing their toothbrush.
The results found that more than half of the people in the UK would be happy to share their toothbrush with another. One in four would willingly share their toothbrush with their partner, one in five with their child and almost one in 10 with a friend.
Most interestingly, the survey found that more women would rather share their toothbrush with their favourite celebrity than a close friend and in the whole were much more liberal about the idea of sharing a toothbrush than men.
Although at some point, most people re-use their old toothbrush for odd-jobs, the survey found that over half the people questioned (59 per cent) eventually end up throwing them away, Over the course of a typical lifetime we should get through over 300 tootbrushes each so that’s a significant number of toothbrushes simply disappearing into the dustbin. Men appear to be the worst serial offenders. Almost two thirds of men admit to throwing their old toothbrushes out, as do three quarters of those aged between 16 and 34, compared to just over half of 45 to 54 year olds and only one third of those over 75.
Results also discovered that a mere one in 20 of people, that’s five per cent, go to the extra mile to recycle their toothbrushes.
Dr Carter wants to see the results of the study have an impact on the UK’s mindset on how people go about discarding their old toothbrushes.
Dr Carter added: “The survey has already shown that many people around the UK do reuse their old toothbrushes for other jobs around the house. Sadly, once they have been worn out it seems that many of them are very sadly thrown away. Try not to toss out old toothbrushes, let’s all be a bit more environmentally friendly.
‘Britain’s recycling efforts have hugely improved over the last decade, going from one of the worst recyclers in Europe to one of the best, so why so few toothbrushes been recycled?
‘I can only assume many are unaware that an old toothbrush can be recycled. If in doubt, just check the packaging before purchase, it should say whether or not it’s suitable or not for recycling. With the average person going through four toothbrushes a year, it’s tough to imagine how many of them are being discarded or actually sent to the nearby landfill.
‘Most manual brushes should have recyclable plastics, while electric power brushes are covered under Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations and can be recycled at the local tip in the bins marked ‘WEEE’ – although, this will not include the replacement heads. Some manufacturers are beginning to make toothbrush handles from this recyclable plastic which is great to see, so don’t let old toothbrushes simply go to waste. Reuse them and then recycle, as the UK’s leading oral health charity, I feel we should be at the forefront of actively promoting the responsibility of recycling old toothbrushes and we are wholly committed to doing so.’
Whether it helps to clean the teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste or goes on to perform other household chores, the life of a toothbrush is one of grime-fighting and servitude.
But acting as an invaluable tool for their masters, it is universally and collectively recognised and applauded, enabling the toothbrush to climb as high as number 33 in the top 100 greatest inventions ever in a recent poll – chosen ahead of the bicycle, the knife and fork and even the calculator. An amazing little helper, the toothbrush.
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Visit www.dentalhealth.org and www.smilemonth.org for more information.