The ‘accidental entrepreneur’: how one student reinvented a traditional toothbrush

When it comes to oral hygiene, the health benefits of miswak have been noted in the Middle East for over a century. Now this age-old tradition is being rebranded by a sleek start-up

The kind of toothbrush with nylon bristles that inconspicuously sits in our bathrooms was invented in 1938, according to the American Dental Association. Boar bristles attached to bone or bamboo handles were used from about 1498, but before that? Meet the miswak.

Portable, cost-effective and organic, miswak is a chewing stick considered to be the first documented form of oral hygiene – Babylonian chew sticks from 3500 BC are probably the oldest dental hygiene artefacts on record. Miswak is cut from the fibrous roots and branches of the Salvadora Persica tree, which grows in the desert, so it is still commonly used in the Middle East, North Africa and Central and Southeast Asia. Admittedly, it does sound archaic to use a twig to clean one’s mouth and teeth.

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The Cutter Case peels off the outer layer to reveal the bristles

To use miswak, you have to trim about half an inch at one end of the stick and chew on the exposed end until bristles start to form. You then soak it in water to soften the bristles and create a small ‘brush’. It’s important to cut off the exposed bristles every few days, peel the bark and start anew. It has a natural, gingery flavour, which gets milder with repeated use. It can be used on the go as it doesn’t require water or toothpaste. And with large toothpaste brands using controversial chemicals such as Triclosan in their products, it’s no wonder that consumers are starting to look for more natural alternatives.

During use, the twig’s natural resin forms a layer over the enamel, which acts as a shield and protects the teeth. Miswak also contains naturally scented oils that both freshen breath and help stimulate the flow of saliva. Meanwhile, natural abrasives such as silica and sodium bicarbonate gently scrub and whiten the teeth, thus combining the characteristics of both toothbrush and toothpaste.

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A natural, gingery flavour leaves the users mouth feeling fresh

Remedial advantages aside, miswak features prominently in Muslim countries for cultural and religious reasons and has done so for almost 1,500 years. The frequent use of this twig is considered a part of Sunnah, a way of life recommended by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), who regularly used it himself.

Now, a student project turned start-up by the name of THIS Toothbrush is celebrating this largely forgotten piece of culture and introducing it to the modern world by giving it a contemporary face. The brainchild of Leen Sadder, a Lebanese designer based in Dubai, THIS offers a products range that uses design and storytelling to revive the use of miswak. And the story, indeed, is a fascinating one. It was during a 3D design course at the School of Visual Arts in New York back in 2010 that Sadder was challenged to redesign the first thing she threw out after class, which just happened to be an empty tube of toothpaste.

That’s when she started to research the origins of toothpaste, stumbling upon the miswak in the process. Essentially unfamiliar with it because she grew up in Lebanon, where it is not a common tradition, Sadder set out to learn more about miswak’s medicinal benefits. A fateful encounter with a Pakistani woman at her local copy centre in Brooklyn, who happened to have been carrying one in her handbag, led to Sadder’s first interaction with miswak.

With large toothpaste brands using controversial chemicals in products, it's no wonder consumers are starting to look for natural alternatives

She soon realised that while its organic and biodegradable qualities would appeal to a Western audience, they wouldn’t quite take to the idea of having to repeatedly chew on the end of a twig. It was this realisation that led to the creation of the Cutter Case, which is easily the pièce de résistance in the whole story. This nifty cigar-cutter-like design concept peels off the outer layer of a miswak to reveal its natural bristles, and then slices them off after use. It also serves as the lid on the company’s clean, minimalist packaging that makes for a sanitary way to store and carry one’s miswak.

What was supposed to be just a five-day student project soon began to garner interest from the media and potential customers – and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, the accidental entrepreneur describes her journey with miswak as “the most interesting and bizarre project to date”, having quit her full-time job in New York roughly 18 months ago to move to Dubai and focus on THIS Toothbrush. The miswak sold by the company are hand-picked and cut from plantations just outside of Karachi in Pakistan and vacuum-sealed to retain moisture, taste and freshness.

As far as having to convince people to give her products a try is concerned, she explains: “There are those who actually know what miswak is, but associate it with their childhood... they think of their grandfathers or other old men who used it walking down the street. What we’re offering them is a reintroduction to the miswak. We’re telling young people about its health benefits. We’re showing them that miswak can fit into their daily lives, that it’s this functional and trendy item that has a place next to their iPhone and other gadgets.” In contrast, there are those who have no idea what miswak is. “The Western market is one we haven’t entered very strongly yet. There is definitely a lot of interest coming from that region, but I chose to start by focusing on the GCC.”

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The cutter keeps the miswak fresh

Expecting to cater primarily to youngsters attracted to the novelty factor, Sadder says the response from the older generation has caught her off guard. “We’ve had a lot of people over the age of 40 or 50 who see miswak as this nostalgic item, so they love to gift it to their children to show them a modern version of something they grew up with.”

Next on the agenda for THIS? “I get a lot of enquiries about flavoured miswak,” Sadder reveals. “Mint could be the way to get people more accustomed to using miswak. Suppliers have tried to sell me on flavours like banana, watermelon and bubblegum,” she says. “What we’re trying to figure out is how to do it the right way, without adding crazy chemicals and losing its fresh, gingery taste. Right now, we only source miswak in its natural form, but are currently experimenting with infusing it with flavours such as mint, cinnamon and lime.” Now that’s something to smile about.