Why Don’t Hotels Give You Toothpaste? An Investigative Report.

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July 3 2013 1:46 PM

The Mystery of the Missing Hotel Toothpaste

A painstaking Slate investigation. 

A view of a bathroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Warsaw, March 16, 2012.
Multiple bars of soap but no toothpaste. Typical.

Photo by Kacper Pempel/Reuters

A few weeks ago, I spent a night at the Kendall Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., a congenial place done up in a firehouse theme with an atrium on the top floor. There’s a bowl of apples in the lobby, free wine and snacks at happy hour, high-thread-count bedsheets, super-plush towels, a complimentary breakfast, and—just like at every other hotel in North America—a set of toiletries so paltry and penurious that it wouldn’t be out of place in a federal prison.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Standard rooms at the Kendall come with four bathroom items: two bottled hair products (labeled “hair purifier” and “hair protector”) and two bars of soap (labeled “cleansing” and “exfoliating”). These come from Gilchrist & Soames, a high-end purveyor of sample-size cosmetics for the hospitality industry, and they’re more than acceptable for an overnight guest. Yet despite the fancy branding, there’s one way in which the Kendall Hotel leaves its visitors vastly unprepared to face the day. I’m grateful for a single bar of soap, and glad to have a second one in case the first slips down the drain. Still, who wouldn’t trade a soap—not to mention a bottle of conditioner—for a tube of toothpaste on the road? It’s nice to cleanse and exfoliate your skin, and a luxury to protect and purify your hair, but isn’t tooth-brushing a necessity?

Hotels distract us from this essential, unmet need with a thin illusion of excess. Even the most egregious fleabags will provide a few skinny bars of soap and a flagon of shampoo. Luxury hotels sprinkle extras on the bathroom counter like confetti: a nail file, a facial towelette, a shower puff, a mending kit, a shoe mitten. And what about the toothpaste—that most indispensible tool of anyone’s toilette, a product used by virtually every hotel guest in America at least twice per day? Why should it be easier to sew a button to your cardigan or polish your loafers than it is to brush your teeth? Why have hotels forsaken oral hygiene? 

The average daily rate for staying at U.S. hotels is $111. The average number of tubes of toothpaste these hotels provide is zero. This isn’t just an industry quirk; it’s a market failure and an outrage. Hotels won’t supply an inexpensive item that consumers clearly need. What’s behind this insane short-circuit of room supply and guest demand? What dark forces underlie the mystery of the missing toothpaste?

*          *          *

A couple of years ago, the travel section of the Washington Post reported on a post-recession trend in the lodging business: high-end hotel swag. The big chains have been competing, the article said, on fancy accoutrements. In place of standard alarm clocks, they’re furnishing their rooms with iPod docking stations. In place of house-brand bottles of shampoo and conditioner, they’re offering L’Occitane.

“Amenities wars” like this have been breaking out for decades. In 1987 the Los Angeles Times described an industry so embroiled in freebie one-upmanship that a hotel in Wabasha, Minn., was offering live cats to its guests. As the “goodies war” intensified, hotel executives decried the wasteful arms race it had produced. “Amenities have truly gotten out of hand,” the president of Regent Hotels told the newspaper in 1990. “So much of it is just garbage, or it simply insults the guest.”

Still, after a period of toiletry retrenchment, the amenities war erupted once again in 2005. This time, it started with a fight over which hotel could claim the most luxurious bedding and ended—as such conflicts often do—in the bathroom. Hilton Hotels launched an upgrade to its toiletry kit, stocking baskets with body lotion, body wash, mouthwash, moisturizing soap, a shower cap, a sewing kit, a vanity kit, a shoe mitt, a shoehorn, and an aqua brush with pumice.

But through all these cycles of competition, one fact has remained more or less the same: Hoteliers never deigned to add a tube of toothpaste to the growing bonanza of cosmetics. Now, as always, any guest who wants some toothpaste—or deodorant, tampons, or any other item that isn’t provided in the room—must request it from the front desk, through the hotel’s “forgot an item” program.

Why has toothpaste been relegated to this supplementary status? I asked this question of executives at 18 North American hotel chains, and most provided the same pair of explanations. First, they said their in-room amenities are chosen based on extensive consumer research. In other words, if the hotels aren’t giving you toothpaste, it’s because you don’t really want toothpaste. “If such requests did begin to trend,” explained a representative from the Wyndham Hotel Group, “we would evaluate our brand standards and offerings.” (Update, July 3: There is at least one major exception to the rule. A Hyatt spokesperson reports that all of that company's hotels in North America offer in-room tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste.)

The second explanation took the form of an appeal to hospitality norms. Several sources said that their company takes its cues from rivals. “Many of our competitors do not include toothpaste as a standard amenity,” pleaded brand director Debbie Grant of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Others shrugged and pointed to the independent companies that assign standard ratings for quality of service. If the ratings don’t require it, the hotels won’t acquire it.

Sure enough, the hotel-ratings firms make very precise toiletry demands, yet as a rule omit any reference to dental care products. According to AAA, which gives out diamond ratings to U.S. hotels, a one-diamond establishment must stock two small bars of soap, while a two-diamond place needs to have two slightly larger bars of soap, plus one packet or bottled item. At three, four, and five diamonds, each hotel is expected to provide ever larger soaps and ever-widening apothecaries of creams, lotions, and gels. Bars and bottles, yes; tubes of toothpaste, no.

“Toothpaste has always been a secondary consideration within hospitality,” said Tim Kersley, senior vice president at Gilchrist & Soames, the high-end toiletries provider. Like the hotel executives, he attributes this neglect at least in part to the influence of the ratings guides. But when I contacted AAA to ask why they’re throwing diamonds at bars of soap but holding back on toothpaste, I got the runaround.

“The diamond ratings come from what we typically see,” a AAA employee told me. “Toothpaste is not something they typically put out.”

“So you don’t give ratings based on toothpaste because hotels don’t give toothpaste to their guests?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“But the hotels told me the same thing—they said they don’t give toothpaste because of your ratings.”

“Hmm.”

“So I guess it’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation?”

“A what?”

“A chicken-or-the-egg.”

“I’m sorry, a what?”

A week later, I got my hands on the first set of Diamond Rating Guidelines that AAA ever published, in September 1987. (The association had been assigning ratings based on less formal criteria since 1963.) These were the earliest toiletry requirements that I could find, but even 25 years ago, toothpaste barely earned a mention. A five-diamond, ultra-luxury hotel was expected to provide two kinds of soap, shampoo, an additional bottled item such as suntan lotion, a hair dryer, a sewing kit, and a shower cap. And toothpaste? A “suggested” amenity, not required.

*          *          *

It’s a strange coincidence of American life that the history of hotel bathrooms and the history of toothpaste have run in parallel but never intersected. In the mid-19th century, only the most upscale hotels would offer rooms with sinks or toilets, and freebie sanitary items—including soap—were rare. According to Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz of the University of New Mexico, author of Hotel: An American History, the private bathroom (and complimentary soap) became a hotel standard only after 1900.

Meanwhile, a swine-bristle toothbrush had been invented in 1780, but up through the end of the 19th century, the practice of dental hygiene was limited to the very rich, mostly by means of powders and mouthwash. In 1873 Colgate began to manufacture toothpaste sold in jars, but it did not become a mainstream good until the development of the collapsible toothpaste tube in 1896. According to Geoffrey Jones’ Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, the product spread rapidly in the years that followed: In 1911 and 1912, Colgate handed out 2 million free tubes to American children and sent hygienists into schools for tooth-brushing demonstrations.

So the hotel bathroom and the toothpaste tube—the free toothpaste tube, even—happen to have arrived at the same point on the timeline of American hygiene, but they seem never to have overlapped in space. By midcentury, the hotel bathroom amenity was still being described as a novelty item. In 1952 a staffer from the New York Times who attended a meeting of more than 100,000 hotel executives at the Grand Central Palace in Manhattan added miniature toiletries to a list of “furnishings, gadgets, and gimmicks” that might soon revolutionize the industry. Conference speakers made predictions for the future, including one that “packaged items for the comfort of guests who have forgotten some of their toilet articles will be distributed free of charge by many enterprising hosts.” What sort of packaged items, exactly? “One set contains samples of cold cream, headache powder, toothpaste, shaving cream, toilet soap, shampoo, eyeglass cleaning tissues and mouthwash.”

A few of these gimmicks—soap, shampoo, mouthwash—would indeed make their way into amenity baskets; others never did. Yet while toothpaste went the way of headache powder in the United States, the evolution of hotel freebies followed another path overseas. When President Nixon visited China in 1972, UPI reported on the Americans’ hotel in Beijing and saw fit to mention that guests were provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, cold cream, hair lotion, and hair spray.

A few years later, a retired Canadian military officer named Byron Button tried to bring the Asian tooth-brushing culture back home. In 1978 he made a business of importing disposable toothbrushes from Japan, with their bristles dusted in dried toothpaste. Button hoped these would become ubiquitous in North American hotels. Needless to say, they did not.

That legacy continues to this day. “Toothpaste is standard in Asia,” said Michele Sweeting, senior vice president of capital planning and procurement at the Four Seasons. Back at home, though, it’s never been considered. “We have really offered the same complement [of toiletries] in North American guest rooms since I started,” she told me. “I think it’s just custom and tradition.”

*          *          *

In 2008 a prisoner in Michigan named Jerry Flanory sued his wardens for their cruel and unusual decision to take away his toothpaste. The 60-year-old inmate had been left without access to dental supplies for 337 days, and he claimed he’d gotten gum disease as a result. The wardens “were aware that he was without toothpaste,” his complaint maintained, and they “were deliberately indifferent to his hygiene needs.”

Flanory went on to lose in court—a jury ruled against him last September—but his Eighth Amendment case reveals that in our penal system, at least, a line of toothpaste runs along the disputed edge of human rights. Free toothpaste has been a source of conflict at Guantanamo: Detainees use it to squirt out poetry, and authorities have withheld it as a form of punishment. It’s notable that at Alcatraz, for many years the nation’s most notorious prison, every inmate received a better set of toiletries than they’d get at any North American hotel: two towels, a bar of soap, a safety razor, and some toothpaste. (In Texas prisons, inmates have to pay for toothpaste at the commissary.)

If dental hygiene is so vital to our self-respect and self-expression—if toothpaste isn’t so much a toiletry as a fundamental privilege—then why can’t we find it in hotel bathrooms? Why should the Hilton give us loofahs but not fulfill our basic need for Crest?

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.

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