Toothpaste – Just Where Did It Come From, Anyway?

One of the fundamental steps that we take to keep our pearly whites shining and our breath fresh is the (hopefully) twice daily ritual of brushing our teeth. Whether you’re a first thing in the morning or last thing before you dash out the door to work tooth brusher, (and I hope you are a tooth brusher!), chances are you glob your usual toothpaste on your brush with little or no thought about the sweet, minty paste that we rely on to keep our teeth white and our breath fresh from day to day. How did we arrive at this futuristic goo, anyway? Where did it come from?

Humans have been using some form of toothpaste across history, since 5000 BC, in fact! Across the world, from Ancient China to Ancient Egypt to Ancient Rome, our predecessors mixed a multitude of (to our modern minds) foul concoctions and smeared them on their teeth in the name of early oral hygiene. The earliest dental creams in ancient Egypt included powdered ingredients like egg shells, pumice, and ashes from burned oxen hooves, mouse, wolf, and rabbit heads (yes, you read that correctly). It gets better. The ancient Greeks and Romans included crushed bones, oyster shells, powdered charcoal, and various tree barks. These powders were likely mixed with water at the time of use. In China, less unpleasant ingredients like salt, ginseng, mints and other herbs could be found in these ancient powder mixes.

Added to the powders with ingredients we find horrifying, our ancestors had some pretty wacky breath freshening practices, as well. A commonly accepted belief was that drinking goats’ milk would keep breath smelling sweet. Others washed their teeth with tortoise blood several times per year to fend off toothaches. Another toothache preventive was to pick bones out of wolf poop and wear them as ornaments. Early mouthwash suggestions include pure white wine or old urine! I’ll stick with the Listerine, thanks.

Fast forward to the 1800’s and toothpaste or tooth powder, still popular, changed again. Most of us grew up with “I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!” used as a threatened punishment for saying forbidden words. In the 1800’s, however, most toothpaste/tooth powder had soap in it. Some other recipes included powdered charcoal (hearkening back to ancient Rome) or other abrasive ingredients were also included. Many toothpaste recipes from this time were less concerned with clean teeth and more concerned with fresh breath. Soap remained a common toothpaste ingredient until the 1950’s (yuck!), when other ingredients took its place.

In the 20th century we see synthetic foaming agents like sodium lauryl sulphate, sweeteners, other synthetic ingredients, and flouride to prevent cavities being added to toothpaste. Mention flouride today and some people will tell you that it is snake oil, while others maintain that flouride toothpaste and flourinated water are major public health advances that promote good oral health for a lifetime, but that is a post for another day. I don’t know about you, but I’m just glad to live in the era of sweetened, flourinated foamy toothpaste instead of powdered mouse head toothpaste.