Oral Care Products Throughout History

It’s hard to imagine a world without toothbrushes and toothpaste. How different would your day be if you couldn’t brush that coffee smell away in the morning or eliminate all that oral detritus in the evening? How quickly would you get cavities; how old will you be when you lose your first tooth?

The First Toothbrush

The modern toothbrush was invented in the 18th century, more than half a millennium after sugar was first consumed in Europe. And throughout that time, our ancestors were drinking wine, smoking, and doing all those things that your dentists warned you about.

However, while the modern toothbrush wasn’t conceived until the 1700s, our ancestors have been using toothbrushing tools for thousands of years.

Over 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians and Babylonians used twigs that were frayed at the end to brush their teeth and in later years the Chinese also turned to twigs, this time chewing on aromatic plants as a way to freshen their breath.

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Prior to this, it’s believed that the Egyptians used a paste they would rub onto their teeth with their fingers. This practice was also common with Mesopotamian societies several thousand years ago and was later adopted by the Greeks.

The paste varied over the years. The Egyptians are believed to have used a substance made of ash and pumice. The Greeks turned to pastes made from crushed bones and shells, which were much more abrasive, but just as disgusting.

The Romans, ever keen to adapt and improve, added ingredients designed to improve bad breath, including aromatic oils, bark, and even powdered charcoal, which has seen a resurgence in recent years due to its adsorbent properties.

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As for the Chinese, their pastes were a little less disgusting and more closely resemble what we use today, with salt acting as the abrasive and herbs adding the flavor and fragrance.

Early Toothpaste

Most ancient toothpastes were made from powder that would form a paste or gel when added to water. They would be brushed onto the teeth and then washed away or mixed with a little water beforehand.

This became common practice during the invention of the first commercial toothpastes, all of which were sold as powders. Even in the Wild West, which is often considered to be a dirty, unlawful place where few people cared about hygiene, tooth powders were common.

Commercial varieties were being produced in England at the time, but local stores would make their own versions using baking soda and flavorings. Cowboys and cowgirls would then apply it to wet teeth, often using just their fingers (even though toothbrushes were available at the time) and then scrub.

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Mass production of toothbrushes didn’t begin in the United States until the final few years of the 20th century, by which time brands like Colgate were producing toothpaste in tubes, much like the ones we still use to this day.

Early toothpastes used soap to create a smooth emulsion, and this continued until 1945, when it was replaced by sodium lauryl sulfate. Fluoride was introduced in 1914 to help strengthen teeth, and from the 1950s onwards, it became more common to add colorants, flavorings, and other ingredients to the paste.

As for whitening toothpaste, technically it was invented by the ancients, as modern whitening toothpaste simply uses highly abrasive substances to scrub the enamel clean. This is essentially what the Greeks were doing over 2000 years ago when using crushed bones and shells.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they had glimmering white teeth because as we’ve discussed many times before, the only way to get that shine is to clean the dentin underneath the enamel. This can only be done with a whitening solution like the SNOW Teeth Whitening Kit, which the Romans definitely didn’t have at their disposal!