homemade toothpaste

Even for people who are really concerned about questionable ingredients found in soaps, cosmetic and household cleaners, making your own toothpaste is an unusual pursuit. Yet as recipes go, toothpaste takes a few easy minutes, avoiding toxins, sweeteners, dyes, packaging, shipping, and last-minute shopping trips. The pleasure of knowing how to meet our own basic daily requirements is something of a liberation. Over the years I’ve grown fond of making toothpaste exactly how we like it. The ingredients are inexpensive, store indefinitely, and go a long way.

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The ingredients

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1 cup Calcium carbonate – otherwise known as chalk or limestone flour. Most toothpastes use this as a base, and it makes sense to me to scrub my teeth with calcium. It makes a fine polish.

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1 TB Sodium bicarbonate – baking soda. I use this as a cleansing and polishing agent, but I don’t love the flavour and lately have been leaving it out and the paste is still effective, tastes better, and is smoother and gentler. Still, it’s an option.

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¼ tsp Sea salt – just a pinch. Salt draws out infection, and helps to heal the gums. I prefer sea salt for its broad mineral content.

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2 TB Birch sugar – otherwise known as xylitol. A sweetener with dental benefits, so they say.

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4 TB Coconut oil – unrefined. I use virgin coconut oil in toothpaste as a base, mostly for its anti-fungal properties. It melts at body temperature.

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Stevia – 2-20 drops, to taste. My children like sweet toothpaste, and this herbal sweetener is one we use frequently, as it doesn’t have much effect on blood sugar.

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Lastly, a flavour, to taste. We like peppermint oil – we use 1.5 teaspoons of an edible, organic extract. There are lots of possibilities for what flavour to use, orange, fennel, and I like that I can keep it mild for the children.

The method

Mix well together calcium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate if using, and sea salt. If finely ground, also mix in xylitol; if coarse crystals, dissolve in ¼ cup of hot water. Melt coconut oil if it is cool and solid, and mix it in. Begin to add water/xylitol water while mixing with a wooden spoon, using just enough to make a soft paste. Lastly, add a little of the peppermint oil and a few drops of stevia, until the flavour is to your liking.

Of course, I’m not a dentist or a doctor, so I leave you to make your own decisions for your teeth.

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We store our homemade toothpaste in a little pot, ready to use. You can even use the leftover paste from the bowl to polish your silverware, white crockery, and enamel, but that’s a story for another day.

tailor’s chalk

Like a set of wooden drawing pencils, or an ink-filled fountain pen, I adore tailor’s chalk for its simplicity of form.

tailor's chalk © elisa rathje 2012

Just a flat shape to grip, a sharp edge to mark fabric with, a pure substance that harms neither the cloth nor the tailor. I have great respect for the ecology of a product that leaves nothing to throw away when it’s done. Even a broken piece remains useful. I love to use this chalk for measuring and marking in quilting and dressmaking. And isn’t it a pretty object?

grinder

Like the bellows, the galvanised bucket, the snips, I often find the best tools are the simplest, strongest, most charming, and can be had for a song if you know where to look. I was ever so pleased to come across an antique grinder in a village shop, and knew it would be worth its weight in, well, breadcrumbs.

antique grinder © elisa rathje 2012

When I was a child one of my chores was to grind the dry crusts of bread into crumbs for this recipe or that. When the paper bag was full of crust, my mother would tighten the mincer onto the counter, and we’d cover the floor in breadcrumbs, turning and grinding. Excellent and useful tool, not only because it is almost entirely metal and likely will never break, not only for the economy of using up those crusts; but for people who suffer from food sensitivities, it is nearly impossible to find good organic, wheat-free breadcrumbs!

antique grinder © elisa rathje 2012

Of course, this is a mincer, for ground meat, and though the thought of the process does little for my former-vegetarian sensibilities, I must say it would be amazing to make my own sausages one day. For now I shall happily grind a hill of breadcrumbs.

(some time later…) My little one loves to mill and was so charming about it, I made a movie.

galvanised bucket

Having grown up in one rainy village and moved across the world to another, I’m quite fond of any object that can emerge with grace from a wet winter. The patina on a galvanised steel bucket only improves with weathering and age. The ones I’ve found around this old cottage, and picked up for a fiver at markets nearby, are thick with stories. I guiltlessly leave them out in the wet, forgotten between the compost and the greenhouse when we’ve headed out for a walk in the hills. A couple of them are understated in such an appealing manner, they’ve been invited inside. I keep one next to my treadle to catch threads and snippets, and another stands upstairs beside the tub. Their dull, perfect grey inspired the resolution of a long-considered project, which I hope to show you tomorrow.

the old bucket © elisa rathje 2012

There aren’t many materials that age so beautifully. The stone chimney pot looks better and better, and the deck chairs are growing a distinguished grey, the terracotta pots are patterned with lichen, but most other objects acquire a distressing coat of slippery green in this climate, or worse, they sport mushrooms.

In 1742, French chemist Paul Jacques Malouin described a method of coating iron by dipping it in molten zinc in a presentation to the French Royal Academy. In 1836, French chemist Stanislas Sorel obtained a patent for a method of coating iron with zinc, after first cleaning it with 9% sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and fluxing it with ammonium chloride (NH4Cl).

Zinc-coated. Endlessly useful object, the galvanised bucket, the sort one might comfortably have around for generations without really noticing.

soapmaking

Soapmaking is one of those traditional skills with a long and ancient history. Making soap yourself grants access to possibilities for variation that is ever so satisfying. The purity of materials is in your own hands, this way. I’m very fond of that deep sense of connection to history and the independence that making things by hand allows. Baking sourdough bread, sewing clothes, throwing clay pots, preserving foraged foods, this is the kind of work that makes me feel grounded. And industrious. I traveled by train to the beautiful seaside village of Clovelly, Devon, to study cold-press soapmaking with Sarah Harper at The Clovelly Soap Company.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

A few natural ingredients are required, and a willingness to calmly, carefully handle the dangers of sodium hydroxide, no worse than chemistry class, but far more exciting, I should think. We dressed in long clothing, with aprons, rubber gloves and protective glasses, and kept a spray bottle of vinegar nearby (to counter the alkaline sodium hydroxide, if necessary).

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

First we measured out coconut oil, sustainable palm oil, and olive oil.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Melted it.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Measured out the sodium hydroxide with great care. The name sounds slightly daunting, but if you responsibly handle boiling water, lighting fires, pumping a car with fuel, or driving one, frankly, you’ll be alright.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

We took this step outside and refrained from inhaling nearby. Adding the sodium hydroxide to the water is safest, stirring til dissolved. The chemical process heats up, so the next project is to cool the melted oils and the sodium hydroxide & water to the correct temperature range. This is the challenging bit, to pay attention to the dropping temperature when one does get lost in conversation, exploring beautiful things in the studio.

soap-making © elisa rathje 2011

Once the temperature is reached, we mixed the two liquids, added essential oils, and whisked them rapidly til they thickened and the wake of the whisk left traces behind it. I used geranium and rose oils.

Excellent process. Once the mixture reached trace we poured it into the moulds and covered with cling film, wrapped in a blanket to slow the cooling process, and went out for a walk along the stone harbour in Clovelly.

I’ll be unmoulding and cutting my soap soon, and leaving it to cure for a few weeks. If you’d like to make your own soap, you can follow Sarah’s guide, first published in the winter appleturnover newsletter. Or if you are a lucky thing and can visit Devon, go and see Sarah and her Clovelly Soap Co.

tea warmer

An essential figure in our cold weather rituals is our glass tea warmer. A simple device. It is built carefully, strongly shaped to support a full pot, with openings around the sides to bring air to the tea candle lit below. A steel plate holds the pot, and a little glass cup holds the candle. It keeps our tea astonishingly hot.

tea warmer © elisa rathje 2011

The tea warmer is particularly excellent for rooibos teas, which only get better as they steep. If I’m drinking earl grey I keep a strainer of leaves nearby on the tray and remove it after a short steep in fresh water, to keep the brew warming without becoming bitter. I set the copper kettle on the wood stove and fill the tea pot now and then. It requires very little energy to have tea all day long.

tea warmer copywrite elisa rathjer 2011

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p>I must warn you against using a flat-bottom tea pot, which, though adorably shaped, is apt to put out the light if it covers the entire top of the warmer snugly. I found this warmer at my favourite tea shop in Vancouver and it was first in line to join us in England. It’s sustained me as I’ve worked through many a cold afternoon in the studio. The tea warmer will play a supporting role in a few tea parties we’ll be throwing over the next little while!