The toothbrush has been the traditional tooth cleaning tool in the US and the rest of the Western world for about the last 150 years. Before that people cleaned their teeth with a cloth or a stick, and may also have employed a toothpick and mouth rinses. Now companies are trying to sell people on the idea that a cleaning stick, called a miswak, is a better oral hygiene tool than a toothbrush. They’re hoping to start a new trend, but are they right?
How the Miswak Works
A miswak is typically cut from the arak tree, also called the toothbrush tree. It’s about the same size as a pencil, though it can be cut a little longer or shorter and may be a little wider.
To use the miswak, you trim the bark off a short section of the stick, then you chew on the stick until it forms bristles (which is why they’re also known as a chew stick). Then you soak the stick in fresh water for 8 hours before the first use.
You used the miswak to clean your teeth just like you would a toothbrush. Ideally, using the miswak five times a day is recommended.
After a few days, you cut off the bristles, then prepare the next section for use by trimming the bark and chewing to make bristles.
The Promoted Benefits of the Miswak
People who are selling the miswak promote many benefits over the traditional toothbrush. First, because the stick is biodegradable, they say it’s more environmentally friendly (though packaging of some brands may counteract this). With images of plastic toothbrushes washing up on otherwise idyllic tropical beaches, they hope to prick the environmental conscience of their high-end oral care market.
It’s with a similar strategy that the marketers point out you can avoid “dangerous chemicals” found in commercial toothpastes. The miswak contains natural ingredients that take the place of toothpastes.
They also claim that it’s more convenient because you don’t need toothpaste to brush your teeth.
Is the Miswak Good at Cleaning Your Teeth?
The good news about the miswak is that it seems to be an effective solution for cleaning your teeth. In studies, it seems to be comparable in effectiveness to brushing your teeth, in terms of gum disease prevention.
The miswak does indeed have antibacterial compounds in it that are somewhat effective at suppressing the growth of oral bacteria. These aren’t as strong as prescription mouthwashes, but they are probably comparable to the antibacterial activity of most toothpastes.
In addition to the chemical suppression, the miswak has silica in it, an abrasive compound sometimes included in toothpastes that may help the miswak remove plaque and may have a teeth whitening effect.
Unanswered Questions about the Miswak
What hasn’t been studies as much is the incidence of cavities in miswak users, particularly in people who consume a typical Western diet high in sugars and acidic foods. People who use the miswak tend to be less westernized, so although they see good benefits from the technique, they might not be facing as much of a challenge in their oral hygiene.
We also don’t know how much the abrasiveness of the miswak will contribute to the erosion of your dental enamel, increasing the risk of tooth fractures and damage.
Essentially, we know too little to recommend the miswak as an oral hygiene tool. We can’t necessarily recommend against it, either, except to say that we do know a toothbrush and toothpaste works, while we’re not as sure about the miswak. If you are interested, you might try using the miswak to clean your teeth during the day, and maintaining your normal oral hygiene at night and in the morning.