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When I opened the mailer to reveal four small boxes in the colors of the tropics, I let out an audible “Ahhh!” My reaction was immediate and visceral. Was it a beautiful makeup palette? A sublime new fragrance? Nope, it was dental floss. Cocofloss, to be precise.
The floss in Cocofloss is the color of the water around Turks and Caicos. It’s coated with coconut oil, the favorite ingredient of wellness acolytes everywhere. And it comes scented, in your choice of coconut, mint, strawberry, or orange. It costs almost three times as much as your average drugstore floss. Goop sells it, as does Free People.
Welcome to hipster oral care.
Personal care is arguably the last frontier for good design, but that’s definitely changing. We’ve seen it in shaving with Harry’s. We’ve seen it with tampons like Cora and Lola, which mix wellness (organic cotton!) and style (designer collaborations!). Vogue and GQ both gushed about Hubble, contact lenses with a color scheme that looks a bit like Cocofloss’ and packaging that comes courtesy of a Brooklyn design firm. Now it’s dental products, with startups like Cocofloss and toothbrush company Quip offering truly attractive products for a process — scraping biofilm off your teeth — that is anything but.
This was exactly the point of launching Cocofloss. “We wanted to repaint floss and change the way people think and feel about it,” says Catherine Cu, an artist who co-founded Cocofloss in 2015 with her sister Chrystle, a practicing dentist and the impetus behind launching the brand. “People think flossing is so gross, so we wanted to build a new association [with it].”
Cu says Cocofloss started when her sister, who practices near Silicon Valley, was frustrated that her patients were into health and wellness, but they weren’t flossing. She recognized it as a habit that needed to be built, and to do that it had to be both easy and motivational. The easy part comes via the subscription model, in which you can choose to have Cocofloss sent to your home for $14 for two floss dispensers every four months. (If you use 18 inches each time you floss, one should last you two months.) You can also buy them one-off for $8 each or three for $21, as well as at third-party retailers. The motivation part comes from the delicious fragrances and great packaging.
Gwyneth Paltrow got it. “I had read that Gwyneth really loved coconut oil pulling and so I ... pitched the products,” says Cu. Jean Godfrey June, Goop’s beauty director, confirms that Paltrow is a fan. She says Paltrow has to “love” anything before it’s sold on the site. “It is full-on over-and-above SUPERIOR to any other floss I’ve tried. I recommend it to everyone — it just… does the job better and less irritatingly,” Godfrey June writes in an email.
This is a point Cu makes frequently during the course of our conversation: that Cocofloss does not put form over function. She says that it is more fibrous than other brands, which are flat and slippery, and claims that “it really scrubs” the plaque, also called biofilm, a mixture of bacteria and sticky carbohydrates. The coconut oil supposedly helps the floss glide better, while also providing minor anti-microbial benefit. (While a well-publicized news story last summer suggested that maybe flossing isn’t necessary because not enough studies supported it, the American Dental Association (ADA) vehemently assured people that flossing is still recommended.) There are no clinical studies that support Cocofloss’ design over others, but the sisters think it’s common sense.
While Cocofloss seems to be alone in the fashionable floss category for the moment, there are numerous attractive toothbrushes to be found. The black bristled Morihata binchotan charcoal toothbrush has been a favorite in GQ gift guides, and is also sold at, yes, Goop and Free People ($8), as well as fancy apothecaries like C.O. Bigelow. There’s Swissco, which comes in tortoiseshell and natural wood finishes; the brand used to be sold at Anthropologie, but you can currently find it at La Garçonne ($6). Then there’s the $50 (not a typo) Italian-handcrafted Buly 1803 tortoiseshell offering at Net-a-Porter. There are also a few subscription services out there like Boka and Tulip, which feature semi-attractive brushes. But no toothbrush brand has positioned itself in this space better than Quip, and that’s because it’s a goddamn sexy toothbrush.
An article last year in Forbes asked rhetorically if Quip was “the Tesla of toothbrushes.” (Spoiler: No, but maybe a Prius.) Elle asked if it was “the Uber of toothbrushes.” (Answer: unclear.) BuzzFeed, in the most compelling review I’ve read, called it “hipster.” Time awarded it one of its “Best Inventions of 2016,” and GQ gave it a grooming award. In the course of our conversation, Quip co-founder Simon Enever, an industrial product designer, mentions Harry’s, Apple, and Everlane as inspirations. Quip’s original angel investors also invested in Harry’s and Warby Parker, so you get the idea. This is a cool toothbrush.
“There are very good reasons that companies are trying to bring coolness or sex appeal to the industry,” says Enever. “The fact that that was missing was what was leading to so many problems.” Problems like more than 30 percent of people not brushing twice a day. Enever had the first glimmer of an idea when his dentist told him that people were really “disengaged” from brushing. “As a designer, that jumped out to me as the perfect opportunity to inject some good design,” he says.
Like Cocofloss, Quip, which also launched in 2015, believes it is solving a motivational problem with its good looks and a functional problem with its brush. The toothbrush is attractive in the way that certain electronics are attractive, and it also has a satisfying heft that makes it seem expensive. It currently comes with a choice of green or blue plastic handles, or four different metal handles that feel cool to the touch. It makes a big tactile impression.
Quip runs on a subscription model, in which you buy the brush and sign up for brush head refills to be sent every three months. A brush set (which can include Quip toothpaste) costs between $30 and $55, with brush head refills costing between nothing and $5, depending what plan you choose. The brush runs on batteries and is about a third of the size of a Sonicare.
Speaking of Sonicare, Quip does not want to be that. Quip is an electric brush that buzzes, and that’s pretty much it — not so different from the Oral-B drugstore version I was using. The only other feature is a two-minute timer that marks off 30-second intervals so you know when to move the brush to a different area of the mouth. Enever considers everything else superfluous. Dr. Mark Burhenne, a dentist who runs the popular site Ask a Dentist and is Quip’s chief dental officer, agrees.
“Oral care is making a lot of money. There are overpriced behemoths with so many features that it’s overwhelming,” Dr. Burhenne says. “We’ve all been brainwashed about what a toothbrush should be.” For the record, the ADA is pretty blasé about the kind of brush you use. The official recommendation, in addition to brushing for two minutes with soft bristles, is: “Both manual and powered toothbrushes are effective at removing plaque.”
The big companies are likely noticing the upstarts in their midst. Sonicare offered a rose gold version over the holidays, which featured a narrow ring of rose gold-colored material around the handle. But I’d be willing to bet many young adults don’t ask their parents for a Sonicare for Christmas, which is something Quip experienced. Enever says the company saw a “massive spike” in gift subscriptions purchased by older people buying for their kids who wanted a Quip, probably after seeing it on Instagram.
Quip is in the process of seeking its next round of funding, and Enever says, “Our core range is going to be growing soon. A lot of what we want to do this year is have some fun.” This will come in the form of limited editions, partnerships, and charitable initiatives, as well as new colors, materials, and finishes on the brushes. He also teased that other daily oral care categories may be forthcoming.
Finally, let’s not forget about artisanal toothpaste, because you can’t use your stunning new brush with garish blue Crest. The companion to Net-a-Porter’s $50 toothbrush is the best-looking toothpaste I have ever seen, Buly 1803’s Opiat Dentaire. The tubes are illustrated with snakes that call to mind tattoo artwork, and the paste is available in flavors like Apple of Montauban for $29 a pop. (Net-a-Porter declined to comment on its fancy toothpaste curation process.) The brand was actually a vinegar company in the 19th century, but was revived and reimagined as an upscale apothecary six years ago. There are shops in Paris, Seoul, and other cities, and a Buly shop-in-shop just debuted at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC and on its website.
Ramdane Touhani, a Buly co-founder, tells me that the toothpaste is becoming one of the brand’s best sellers. It’s made with water from an ancient spring in France that has actually been accredited by the health department there to treat dental ailments. And the tube design, which is made of embossed aluminum with a metal cap, is an award winner. “All the tube factories in Europe meet and we always win,” Touhani says, while gleefully showing me a picture of him holding the award certificate. “It’s a very stupid thing. It makes me laugh every time.”
Also stupid, in Touhani’s opinion? Mint-flavored toothpaste. “We hate mint. It smells like a product you would use to clean your bathroom.” (There is a mint, coriander, and cucumber-flavored paste in the range, but he claims you can only taste the coriander.)
But you can’t talk about fancy toothpaste without mentioning Marvis. Marvis, which has flavors like licorice and ginger mint, is packaged in vintage-looking tubes, and has been a mainstay in the US for over 20 years, is mostly carried in fancy apothecaries. But you can now find it at Net-a-Porter and Sephora for about $13 a tube and in various sampler sets. It was embraced by the menswear community within the last decade, partially because it’s a Florence-based brand and has been inserting itself into Pitti Uomo, the twice-yearly menswear bacchanalia that takes place in the city. ”It became a big fashion brand, and we were seeing it in amenity programs in hotels,” says David Pirrotta, a distributor of primarily natural beauty brands who helped introduce Marvis to the US two decades ago. “It’s the staple niche toothpaste.”
Hot on the heels of Marvis is Lebon ($22), a Belgian-based natural toothpaste company that you’re going to be seeing everywhere soon. Rita Sayegh, the retail director for Mills Apothecary, a Michigan-based retailer that carries beautiful and unique beauty products, showed me the gold tubes, which share a tropical aesthetic with Cocofloss. “I see a lot of people coming to the store looking for specialty toothbrushes, toothpastes with a unique flavor palette, and brands that are presented and packaged beautifully,” she says.
Lebon comes in six different flavors like Tropical Crush and features ingredients like green tea and aloe vera. It also doesn’t contain fluoride, but Pirrotta, who is the distributor for Lebon, says that’s what was attractive about the brand to him, since consumers are starting to look for fluoride alternatives. (The ADA still recommends toothpaste with fluoride.) And they’re designed for today’s consumers who enjoy a pop of color. “In the last few years people were into minimal, really clean, and aesthetically androgynous packaging. In the last year or two, though, everyone’s been drawn to more colorful packaging,” he says. “It makes you happy when you look at it. You want to grab it and try it.”
Also be on the lookout for Theodent, which uses a chocolate extract compound instead of fluoride, with Marvis-esque packaging. Pirrotta also notes that he’s been talking to “fashion forward” LA-based charcoal toothpaste startup Carbon 6, whose graphic black and white packaging is compelling in a Breaking Bad logo sort of way. Toothpaste, perfectly positioned at that intersection of wellness and design, is likely to see a lot of creative upgrades in the next few years.
And it seems the people are ready. Sayegh of Mills says, “I like to think that our tastes are evolving and that great design is appreciated on any level.”
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