Having learned nothing from the hotels themselves and little from the ratings firms, I decided to round up theories from outside the industry, and then investigate them one by one.
The first and most popular explanation for the missing toothpaste posits the existence of a giant vat—or several giant vats, really—located in the basement of each hotel. These are filled with shampoo, conditioner, and other cosmetic fluids. When the staff needs more toiletries, they tap their kegs to refill the bottles. So why is there no toothpaste in hotel rooms? Because you can’t refill a collapsible tube. One can poke a bunch of holes in this theory of the giant vat, but really one will do: There are no vats of lotion; the hotels buy their toiletries prepackaged, several hundred units to a case.
A related theory, that of the penny-pinching hotelier, holds that toothpaste is more expensive than the other toiletries, perhaps because of costs related to the tube. There’s some truth to this idea, says Kersley, the executive at Gilchrist & Soames. In the United States, toothpaste falls under a more rigorous set of regulations than shampoo or soaps; it’s treated like a drug. As such, it must be produced according to the government’s rules for “good manufacturing practice,” which can increase the cost by 30 percent or more. “Toiletries cost less than an oral hygiene product … the cost-per-ounce is lower,” Kersley told me. “[Non-toothpaste] toiletries have the maximum bang for the buck.”
This might explain why we don’t find toothpaste at roadside motels and motor inns, but what about the five-star resorts? Toothpaste may cost a little more per ounce than soap, but that ought not make much difference in a high-end basket of amenities, the kind with shoeshine kits and pumice sponges. Hotel executives assured me that the price of toothpaste is generally “in line” with those of other amenities. “Toothpaste is not a cost-prohibitive addition,” said Sweeting of the Four Seasons.
A friend who spent 35 years as a general manager and director of operations in the hotel industry, Coyne Edmison, gave the opposite appraisal. His was the theory of aspirational toiletries: “The items in most four-star or above amenity programs are meant to imply luxury—a step above the status quo, something not found in the typical home,” Coyne said. “Just no status in toothpaste, I guess. Amenities are not there for your convenience, but are placed there as a position statement of the hotel.” But if that’s why the Four Seasons skimps on toothpaste, what about Best Western?
A fourth idea comes from Fred Bernstein, a longtime travel writer for the New York Times who has repeatedly bemoaned the lack of in-room toothpaste in his columns. When I emailed Fred to get his take, he offered up his “perverse theory” that the missing toothpaste can be attributed to a concierge-desk conspiracy. “Is it possible that hotels want you to have to call the front desk, so that they can send up toothpaste via bellhops, who then get tipped?” he asks. “But it’s not a strong theory, I admit—since toothpaste is absent even in hotels that don’t have bellhops.”
The intimacy of toothpaste provides another explanation. What if American hotel guests shrug off freebie dental hygiene out of squeamishness? “If you think about toiletries, you’re diluting those products with copious amounts of water,” said Kersley, “and they’re only in contact with your skin topically.” Toothpaste, on the other hand, goes in your mouth, and maybe down your throat. That might also account for the lack of deodorant and tampons—two more vital, intimate bathroom items that never show up in your room.
Consumers may have cause for worry: In 2007 it came out that a batch of “Cooldent” toothpaste from China was contaminated with a toxin used in antifreeze, and that the product made its way into the front-desk supplies at American luxury hotels. But according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 85 percent of hotels now carry branded amenity products. There’s no reason why the more upscale establishments can’t hand out a trusted brand like Crest or Colgate.
Or perhaps it’s a simple matter of portability and convenience. A bottle of shampoo might leak in your luggage; a bar of soap is often slimy; a tube of toothpaste, though, can be tossed into your Dopp kit without a second thought. (Same goes for tampons and deodorant.) According to this theory, hotels provide only those bathroom items that you wouldn’t want to pack yourself. But that doesn’t explain why certain other, easily packed items—such as shaving kits and shoehorns—are more prevalent than toothpaste. Nor does it account for the inconveniences of modern travel: Since September 2006 the TSA has required that all gels, lotions and pastes be put into small containers and stowed inside a clear, 1-quart bag.
So if we can’t blame the missing toothpaste on the stinginess of hotel executives, the dereliction of the ratings firms, or the finicky tastes of travelers, then what’s left? Only the gloomy notion that we might all be equally to blame. Hotels could give us toothpaste but they don’t. No one knows why, and no one cares. It’s how things have always been, and how they’ll always be.
If the missing toothpaste were a matter of tradition—the result of some odd and arbitrary choice made in the early days of hotel bathrooms—then we might expect to see the sad, self-sustaining loop of inconvenience that’s now in place. The hotel managers claim to choose amenities based on market research, and that this research fails to find demand for dental hygiene. The message is very clear: We don’t get toothpaste in our rooms because we don’t ask for toothpaste in our rooms; we don’t ask for toothpaste in our rooms because we never knew we could.