Getting to Know: Heather McDougall of Bogobrush

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Heather McDougall is the co-founder of Bogobrush, along with her brother John McDougall. Both are children of a dentist who pursued careers in other fields but they have come full circle and returned to the toothbrush. More importantly, they are using this single, everyday, taken-for-granted item and using it as a means for social change. More than just another toothbrush company, Heather has some very inspiring ideas about the ways in which the toothbrush can affect our environment and under-served communities, as well as communities in other impoverished areas outside of our borders, in a positive way. The Bogobrush is a great example of how the items we choose in our lives could carry a value that goes way past a monetary number. 

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How did Bogobrush come about? What were the inspirations, motivations and goals that fueled the birth of the Bogobrush?

John and I say the idea came from when we were kids, growing up as children of a dentist. But, really, neither of us had any intention of following the family business. John went to design school while I went to law school. During those years, we realized our shared passion for sustainability. We wanted to do our part, so we talked about a lot of ideas. We kept coming back to a toothbrush. It’s something people use everyday! More than half a billion manual toothbrushes end up in landfills or polluting natural habitats in the U.S. alone, and more than 80 million Americans lack access to adequate oral care. We had somehow come full circle from childhood.

What was it like growing up with a dentist in the house? I am sure you learned a lot of oral hygiene tips and tricks. Is that the part of the reason why you felt a calling towards helping people with their at-home oral hygiene?

Growing up was a blast. Our mom and dad always encouraged creativity, play, and adventure. Naturally, we also learned a lot about oral health: tips for best ways to brush teeth, what the best toothbrush bristles are, the foods and drinks that are harmful to oral health, how oral health affects heart health, and as we got older, we’d hear how lack of access harms a variety of communities around the country and world, and how policies and diet habits are barriers to quality care. I don’t think we felt a calling at the time, but it certainly helped us see oral health as a real issue to tackle for sustainability.

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Heather and John as little tykes, brushing away.

I understand that currently there are two models for your brushes- a recyclable plastic and a biodegradable handle. Could you describe each in more detail? Why did you guys decide to have a plastic one, rather than going entirely with biodegradable options?

Our plastic brushes are made from entirely recycled plastics that would have been thrown in the landfill. We use what is technically called “re-grind,” which is the plastic waste from other manufacturing projects. We get it from those projects, re-grind it up, and it become the recycled Bogobrush. The handle is 100% recyclable – just toss it in the recycle bin when it’s use is over.

The biodegradable Bogobrush is made from leftover plant material from farms across midwest America. The plant material gets mixed with a vegetable based oil and turns into a material that can be molded like plastic but is biodegradable! Both options can be found here.

We have both options so Bogobrushes can choose which end of life stream is best for their lifestyle. Not everyone composts or has access to community compost so recycling is the best bet. Same thing in reverse. And while composting is awesome, recycling has now become more energy efficient than landfills, and that’s an important industry to help advance.

I totally agree! We, ourselves, do not have an option for composting, and I am a huge proponent of supporting the recycling system in order to advance its abilities for future generations. So, what now? What exciting plans do you guys have in the future for the Bogobrush?

Later this year we’ll be launching a whole bunch of new products. We’re launching new colors, new biodegradable materials, and an updated design – still the same beautiful product, just more refined and less material so it’s better for the planet. Plus, the cat’s not quite out of the bag, but we’re also working on a children’s collection. We have some really fun things launching with that, and we hope you’ll follow along later this summer when we announce it fully!

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Definitely! I will be very much interested in the kid’s toothbrushes, since we see a lot of children in our office! Besides Bogobrush, what are some of your other favorite oral hygiene brands?

I love Cocofloss for my dental floss. I’d love to do a partnership with them for Bogobrush some day, too. 🙂 I also really love the Toothy Tabs from Lush Cosmetics. So easy to travel with and they have super random flavors. One of my faves is Grapefruit and Black Pepper. Mint toothpaste loyalists beware. Ha!

Bogobrush stands for Buy one, Give one. I think it’s amazing that you guys are devoted to making a social impact in the lives of under-served communities. What are some communities that benefit from the Bogobrush?

To date, we’ve worked with low cost health clinics in communities across the U.S. For instance, in Detroit, we partner with Covenant Community Care. These clinics serve populations who are under-insured or don’t have any insurance at all. They provide a beautiful health clinic, and top quality care. We think quality matters and helps everyone feel valued.

Recently, we decided to start expanding our giving beyond clinics and even beyond toothbrushes when the case is right. This past May, we partnered the Engineers without Borders from North Dakota State University on their work in a partner community in Guatemala. This will be an ongoing relationship and we’re excited to see how we can help support their work for educating about engineering, clean water, and health. We’re also working to get connected with urban farming and art education. Anything that we think relates to sustainability, we want to join the communities and lend our support.

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Partnership with NDSU Engineers without Borders

Currently are you guys accepting applications from other organizations to be a part of the Give Back program? If other communities are interested in benefitting from the Bogobrush, how might they became part of the program?

Yes! We are actually just creating an official application process for this. We’d love to hear from folks interested in partnering – once, twice, on-going, or any ideas welcome. Send an email to contact@bogobrush.com to get started.

Do you guys plan to extend your outreach program to international levels? I have a bit of wanderlust in me, so this question definitely peaks my interest.

Yes again! The Engineers Without Borders program is international support. We’re also working on a relationship with some folks in Spain who are doing reforestation and ocean clean-up work. For us, it’s all about the community of Bogobrushers and their communities of giving back. The Engineers Without Borders are at NDSU, and North Dakota is where John and I grew up so we have loyal supporters in that community. As long as people feel a personal connection to the give, we aren’t too concerned about geography. The folks in Spain will sell Bogobrush, so their sales and customers will be connected to their outreach work.

How may dentists in particular become more involved with spreading Bogobrush’s impact?

We’d love to talk to dentists about providing Bogobrushes to their patients. This could be through resale, or the brush dentists often give after hygiene appointments. Longer term, we’d love to develop a program through our subscription service online that helps dentists remind their patients of appointments and other important oral care check points. And, if dentists have any outreach causes their connected to, let us know and we can find a way to work together. Of course, on the simplest end of support dentists can spread the word on social media, offer to write blog posts, and share knowledge with our community.

What is the most difficult obstacle in trying to convince others to switch to a Bogobrush?

Our biggest obstacle has been getting the story out. Most people don’t care about their toothbrush. It’s an object that they have to use, and they dont’ think about it much beyond that. This means, a toothbrush, especially a manual toothbrush is mostly commodity and price-based. We are using values to sell a toothbrush. That means our job is to tell stories. To show people why a Bogobrush is worth paying a few dollars more for – the environment and helping your community. This fall we’ll be doing a lot more sharing our story because we have funding for marketing!

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How do you guys overcome difficult times?

Stay focused on the bigger mission. If we wanted to sell a cool looking plastic toothbrush, the hurdles would be much smaller. We’re trying to push the needle on a variety of fronts, though. We talk about our dreams for the world, we talk about our dreams for our own lifestyle, we talk about our vision for the company as it expands beyond Bogobrushes and into even more products that can help the world. Bogobrush is an amazing toothbrush, but for us, it’s so much more than that. It’s the start of something so much bigger.

How do you unwind and refresh?

Unwinding and refreshing happens for me whenever I turn off the switch on work, and let my mind roam freely through other adventures. For instance, John and I both love to be active and moving. For me that means yoga, hiking with my husband, or walking my dog. For John, he snowboards, hikes, or goes indoor climbing. Unwinding can even be dinner as a family, ditching my phone for a few hours, dancing in my living room, or playing music.

What would you consider your greatest success so far? And what is one moment you won’t ever forget?

Regarding success with Bogobrush, there are moments in time that we celebrate, but right now the greatest success that comes to mind is the very first step. The first decision to type into google “toothbrush manufacturer.” A close follow-up to that is learning to evaluate the balance of persistence and pivoting. We’ve been working a long time on this. We could give up at any number of challenging times, but our persistence and faith in our vision keeps us going. And our ability to see that sometimes the path forward is to turn right or left allows persistence to pay off.

One unforgettable moment is from 2014. John and I were in our bristling partner’s facility watching our first run of recyclable handles go through the machine, and success! We’d first tried to make Bogobrush from bamboo with overseas manufacturers. This didn’t work, and in bristling we lost more than half of the handles to breakage. Being with John, 2 years later to watch our pivot turn into success was so amazing.

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Bristling the Bogobrush.
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Success! Bogobrush bristles in the making!

If you could give one piece of advice to other creative entrepreneurs wishing to create social change, what would it be?

Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Question why you’re doing what you’re doing. I don’t think 100% certainty is necessary, but a gut level peace and energy will keep you moving. And bonus advice – when you get stressed, do something else that’s fun! Nothing is as big of a deal as we think it is. I’m super guilty of this, but step out, do something fun – even if it’s forced. 🙂

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Canyoning in the Snake Canyon on a trip to Oman. “It was one of the most epic things we’ve ever done!” Heather is on the left with her husband David and John is on the right with his wife Hannah.

Thank you Heather for taking the time to interview with me. You’re an inspiration to the dental field and a wonderful reminder that we can make changes beyond the doors of a dental office. Bogobrush is currently offering TheDebtist readers their first subscription for free. Mike and I have personally been using Bogobrush since January of 2018 and we will not go back. 

Bogobrush: Raising social and environmental awareness, one toothbrush at a time.

This post is sponsored by Bogobrush, a source for ethically made, sustainable toothbrushes, with a one-for-one give-back program towards low-income communities, wherein a toothbrush is considered a commodity for the privileged.

In case I can convince you of the importance of choosing the right toothbrush for you and your loved ones, Bogobrush is offering The Debtist readers a special offer (full details below).

There are many folks out there who believe that a dentist’s main purpose is to sell treatment. Numerous patients have voiced to me some past experience or other with dentists who tried to sell them whiter teeth and nicer smiles for the sake of esthetics. So while this may be true for some, it isn’t how I operate or how I practice my work. I would say I fall heavily towards the more conservative side of practicing dentistry. A majority of my time is spent trying to teach patients how to prevent the need for dental treatment, via proper oral hygiene techniques at home and frequent follow ups and dental visits. I like seeing my patients twice a year, if not only to hear how their children are doing at school or how their holidays went. I prefer to think that they enjoy doing the same with me. In general, I am pretty hesitant on agreeing to cosmetic treatment, especially so with treatments such as veneers. When patient’s come to me wanting such treatment, I kindly voice the truth, which is the fact that nothing will ever be as strong (or beautiful) as your natural dentition. Removing tooth structure will always weaken the tooth. Enamel is the hardest part of your body, stronger even than bone. A veneer will possibly pop-off, since it is only bonded to your tooth on the facial aspect, and preparing the teeth for a veneer could cause sensitivity. If the patient is young, in their twenties or thirties, they must consider the likelihood that they will have to replace these veneers 3-4 times throughout the rest of their life. Quite a costly price for a cosmetic fix. Off course, if the patient insists, then autonomy prevails, and I will succumb to what will make them happy, but only after failing to convince them otherwise. To each their own. Some would consider my method a bad business move (because it is), but I didn’t enter the profession for money, so I don’t really have a motive to promote such options.

A majority of my time is spent trying to achieve a patient’s goal via the most conservative path possible. My favorite word during diagnosis is to “observe”. More often than not, the patient will be happiest to. My focus at work revolves around prevention. I would rather teach prevention of caries and other dental problems so that my patients return every six months needing nothing but a cleaning. Easier for me, easier for them. It saves them money, and saves me time, which could be used teaching even more patients the power of prevention. And so the cycle continues.

When I first entered dentistry, I knew that my model would revolve around teaching. I tutored for ten years prior to dental school, and it has undoubtedly shaped my world view about learning. I paid a lot of money going to dental school to learn about dental health care, so that others wouldn’t have to pay a lot of money to care for their teeth. As I volunteered in multiple third world countries, and farming communities within our own state, I learned that empowering is more important than giving. That equipping with knowledge is more important than aiding. It is the idea that it is better to teach a child at an early age how to brush their teeth properly thus empowering them with a life-long skill to improve their health, rather than aid an adult in extracting all their decayed teeth and replacing them with a denture. This is what it means to have TRUE impact that will change communities, even after you are gone and no longer around. I refuse to be a part of cycle that creates further dependency, but rather, prefer to create groups of people who are self-sufficient and independent.

With all of this in mind, there is one thing I sell on the daily. Toothbrushes. And with this came multiple considerations that I felt did not align with my truest of values. Specifically, toothbrushes are created from plastic (most times), which are carelessly disposed of without a thought in the world.

Did you know that 450 million toothbrushes end up in US landfills every year?

Additionally, toothbrushes are usually packaged in clear plastic, but don’t ask me why. And then there is the issue of having multiple toothbrush companies, claiming that they can outdo all other toothbrushes. There are toothbrushes with hard bristles, medium bristles, soft bristles, even extra-soft bristles. There are toothbrushes with different handles, with grips claiming to improve ergonomics, with handles that are bent, handles that are straight. There are electric toothbrushes that move in circular motions, toothbrushes that vibrate left and right, toothbrushes that light up when you’ve brushed for the appropriate amount of time. Worse, there are advertisements, companies, and, let’s face it, some dentists, who sell these different types. I am here to say that while these toothbrushes could aid some groups of people, particularly those with arthritis, or Parkinson’s disease, or anyone else who has difficulty with holding and maneuvering a regular toothbrush, the efficiency of brushing teeth lies mostly in your technique, rather than the toothbrush itself. Sure, a change in toothbrush can get you closer towards increased plaque removal, but so could improving your brushing habits and methods. What if one increases plaque removal by practicing the proper technique? Then we could focus on buying a toothbrush based on other characteristics. Such as sustainability. Such as responsible and local manufacturing. Such as toothbrushes that give back to low-income communities.

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Enter Bogobrush! A toothbrush that is in harmony with many of my values, and one I would be happy to sell. Bogobrush was created with two things in mind: a product that was good for the planet, and for the people who live on it. The masterminds behind bogobrush are a brother sister duo from a small town in North Dakota, whose father was a dentist. The name BOGObrush comes from the idea of Buy One, Give One, a pillar of what Bogobrush is about. With each toothbrush you buy, another is given to someone in need through their partners. Created was a simple way to protect the planet, buy ethically-made, and give back.

Sustainable:

There are two toothbrush options:

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Recycled Plastic: A toothbrush that can be recycled repeatedly, forever. We are taking plastics destined for the landfill and giving them a second chance at life. The toothbrushes are made from recycled plastic number 5, and can be placed in your recycle bin. To facilitate the process, please remove the non-recyclable bristles with small pliers.

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Biodegradable: A composite material made from biodegradable plants, which can be composted at the end of its life. The current design is made from flax, but a new design is in the works for a plant-based material made from hemp! Recycling options include curbside or backyard. If you have a curbside compost bin, simply discard there. If not, you can toss the handle into your backyard compost pile. As organic matter, it will degrade into carbon monoxide, water, and humus (a soil nutrient). As with anything, it may take a few months or a few years to decompose, since the time of degradation depends on the health of the compost pile and is affected by factors such as humidity, temperature, and biodiversity. The bristles are not compostable so please pull them out using small pliers. However, if bristles do end up in the compost stream, they will break down into little pieces with time. Not the best solution, but a step towards the right direction.

Ethically Made:

Despite the higher cost of producing in the United States, these brushes are manufactured here, a sacrifice worth making. It allows for easier communication with the developers, facilitates site visits, and creates more personal relationships with those who source Bogobrush materials. The focus is to have transparency regarding the supply chain, with the knowledge of the who, what, where, and when of each part of the product, down to the bristles!

Giving back:

More than 80 million Americans lack access to adequate oral care.

This statistic can affect aspects in daily living that we take for granted, including education, work, and overall health. Imagine how much less access there is, to something as simple as a toothbrush, throughout the rest of the world. A toothbrush is a privilege, something I’ve learned throughout my journey volunteering in under-privileged communities. This is something we can change. The hope of creating a more balanced world was so important, that the name itself comes from the idea of buy one, give one.

Currently supporting:

  • Covenant Community Care: Detroit, MI. Serving the people of Metro Detroit through six health clinics across the city. They provide medical, dental, and behavioral health care to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.
  • Apple Tree Dental: Twin Cities, MN. Dedicated to providing complete dental care to people throughout Minnesota through its clinics and innovative mobile dental unites. They give away 20,000 toothbrushes annually.
  • Family Healthcare: Fargo, ND. Providing personal, high quality medical and dental care to anyone in the Fargo region, regardless of ability to pay. They also offer significant tools to aide healthful lifestyles.

Minimalist Design:

Admittedly, part of what initially grabbed my attention was the minimalist design. Here they are selling a toothbrush without the frills. Without the batteries, without the lights. A simple design that can be just as effective is always appreciated, in my book.

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Option to purchase a stand, also in a minimalist form.

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Subscription:

Most of my patients are surprised when I tell them that, ideally, we want the toothbrush to be replaced every 3-4 months. A frayed toothbrush has decreased efficiency with plaque removal, and depending on the method of use, a toothbrush can easily fray within a few months. Some tell me that they’ve had their toothbrush for over a year! With Bogobrush, you could subscribe so that a toothbrush is delivered to you every 2, 3, or 4 months. So you’ll never forget. You can also mediate how many shipments you receive. As incentive, the price of each toothbrush decreases with a subscription, in case all the other incentives above were not enough.

As even further incentive, Bogobrush is offering The Debtist readers their first subscription for free. Cancellation is allowed at any time, if you are not satisfied with the product. A link is placed on the sidebar, in case you are interested in making a change. You must subscribe via my personal link below or in the sidebar in order to receive the promotion. I hope you join me in the movement. If I am to support a product, I want it to be a product that will bring both social and environmental awareness into people’s everyday lives. A toothbrush is a product many of us use every day. And we have a choice.

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Thank you for supporting the brands that harmonize with The Debtist’s internal values and external intentions. And thanks to Bogobrush for inspiring me to be a better dentist and a better teacher. Starting today, there will be a series on my blog regarding all things dental, to promote dental education, without the student loans.