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Neem—this word may not mean anything to most Americans, but to others around the world it is their key defense in maintaining oral hygiene.

A neem tree has also been called a toothbrush tree. Its branches have been used as the main toothbrush for centuries for many in India, the Middle East, parts of Africa and other developing countries. According to the Department of Preventative Dental Sciences at the College of Dentistry in Saudi Arabia, studies have revealed that there are anti-plaque, anti-cavity and antibacterial effects from using neem sticks.

You can’t just pick up a neem tooth brush at the store though—you have to make it yourself.

First choose a young, flexible neem tree branch. Peel off its skin. Then chew one neem twig end until it looks like toothbrush bristles. Even chewing the branch releases ingredients that destroy bacteria, lessen teeth tenderness and prevent bacteria and plaque from remaining on your teeth.

After rubbing the brush on the sides of the teeth, the stick is split in half and formed into a U-shape and becomes a tongue cleaner. Of course, you can’t re-use this toothbrush, but it’s easy to make a new one everyday if a neem tree is near.

The neem tree is an evergreen from the mahogany family. It grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions and is native to India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The twigs aren’t the only part of the tree that has health benefits. Its bark can also be used for treating gum disease, and its leaves for medicinal uses. Neem oil, which is pressed from the seeds of the tree, can be used as inspect repellent and to treat skin diseases and fevers.

If you are ever in one of these countries and forgot your toothbrush, look for a neem tree. But while you are at home, your best oral hygiene plan is to brush twice daily with fluoride toothpaste and a toothbrush with soft bristles, floss and don’t forget to schedule a bi-annual teeth cleaning at the Lakeway Center for Cosmetic and Family Dentistry.