x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

UAE Portrait of a Nation: the Lebanese designer who brought oral hygiene traditions to the modern world

Leen Sadder never thought a student project inspired by a tube of toothpaste would change her life so drastically 

Leen Sadder started a business from her student university project. Pawan Singh / The National
Leen Sadder started a business from her student university project. Pawan Singh / The National

The biog

DOB: March 13, 1987
Place of birth: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia but lived in Virginia in the US and raised in Lebanon
School: ACS in Lebanon
University: BSA in Graphic Design at the American University of Beirut
MSA in Design Entrepreneurship at the School of Visual Arts in New York City
Nationality: Lebanese
Status: Single
Favourite thing to do: I really enjoy cycling, I was a participant in Cycling for Gaza for the second time this year

When Leen Sadder threw away a tube of toothpaste after class one day, she never imagined it would be the start of a journey that would lead her to move to Dubai and have her name appear in media reports from around the world.

The 30-year-old was following instructions to “redesign the first thing you throw away” as part of a project in her product design class at the School of Visual Arts in New York. When that thing turned out to be a tube of toothpaste, the student Sadder decided to research the historical traditions around dental hygiene. “I came across an article from the World Health Organisation about the miswak,” she said.

Miswak is an organic and natural teeth cleaning stick that comes from the salvadora persica, or arak, tree. It has been traditionally used for oral hygiene in Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries since ancient times and is thought to have antibacterial and plaque-reducing properties. “It has natural medicinal benefits and ... I knew it also had heritage significance. And it’s considered Sunnah – referring to the daily practice of the prophet Mohammed – in Islam, so I was surprised it wasn’t more well-known. In my circle, at least,” Ms Sadder said.

In Islam it is said the messengers of the Prophet, as well as Mohammed himself, used miswak. “I thought it would be an interesting challenge to modernise it and revive it, and bring it to an audience that doesn’t know it,” the Lebanese designer said.

She bought some miswak and found that, although she loved the natural toothbrush, it was not well packaged – it was tricky to store and to keep clean. So she created a prototype of a storage case that peeled the stick ready for use and stored it.

After presenting her project to class and without thinking much of it, Sadder uploaded the concept to her online portfolio. That is when everything changed. “A big industrial design blog found it and featured it in one of their articles,” remembers Ms Sadder, “and it started to spread to different US-based blogs like Gizmodo as a natural toothbrush that nobody knows about.”

Her name and product was featured in global media outlets and she soon began receiving emails from around the world requesting to buy the toothbrush. “After I graduated, I started working on it more seriously. I hired an industrial designer to join the team so we could design a carrying case that could cut, peel and store [miswak] and start producing it.”

She started a crowdfunding campaign for the project with Zoomaal and raised 18,750 dollars in one month. “I realised that there was a lot of interest coming from Saudi, Islamic communities and the GCC,” she said, so she quit her job in a digital design firm, moved to Dubai and the team went into production. “It made more sense to come to Dubai which is the hub for these communities.”

The product, now known as THIS Toothbrush, launched two years ago and “it’s been doing great,” Sadder said. “There is definitely a demand for something modern that’s still tied to heritage.” What started off as a student project soon attracted a massive audience, both from religious and natural health audiences, and now there are even variations designed for Ramadan gifting – the time when the product is most in demand. Companies can customise the product to be used for corporate gifts, and she offers monthly subscriptions delivered to your door. Her online store www.thisisatoothbrush.com ships worldwide and The Cutter Case, including two miswaks, costs between Dh85 and Dh99.

“People were intrigued and thought I was crazy at first,” Ms Sadder said. “I would have probably never thought to pursue it if I hadn’t seen such a strong reaction to the project and I never intended it to be my life now.”