How Did People Clean Their Teeth Before the Invention of Toothpaste?

Blue toothpaste tube with white lid is half full with the bottom rolled up a bit against a white background

When brushing your teeth, have you ever thought about what it was like before toothpaste existed? It probably didn’t smell too great when talking face-to-face with your neighbor. But don’t worry too much about our ancestors’ halitosis. Toothpaste was actually invented a lot earlier than you would think. It might not have looked quite like the blue goo that we know and love, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Here, we’ll dive into the history of toothpaste and how the past kept their smiles fresh.

Ancient Times

There were a number of societies around 500 BC that were experimenting with toothpaste-like substances. Although toothbrushes hadn’t quite been invented yet, Egyptians used a paste made of soot, gum arabic (a naturally-occurring gum made from the hardened sap of an acacia tree), and water. The result was probably a little bit more abrasive than our modern-day Colgate or Crest. But the Egyptians were not alone in the consistency of their toothpaste-like concoctions; the Greeks and Romans’ version used crushed bones and oyster shells and flavored it with charcoal powder and bark. Yuck! Ancient China’s approach included herbal mints, salt, and ginseng and was notably closer in composition to our modern day toothpaste.

The 1800s

Around this time, toothpaste was becoming more recognizable and also less likely to make your gums bleed. However, one noticeable difference from today’s toothpaste is that people were putting soap in it! Other ingredients included chalk, charcoal, and areca nut (a fruit found in tropical climates). As the benefits of fluoride aiding in the prevention of tooth decay had yet to be discovered, many “dentists” of the time (dentists used to double up their workload and act as the town barber too) thought soap would be a good way to clean the mouth. It didn’t taste so great and that’s where the phrase, “I’ll wash your mouth out with soap,” comes from.

The 1900s

It was in this century that the benefits of fluoride were finally discovered. Modern toothpaste was invented to treat and prevent specific conditions such as plaque buildup and tooth decay. With soap thrown out as an ingredient, they were able to create an even smoother paste using sodium lauryl sulfate, which we still use in toothpaste to this day!

Modern Day

Today there are many kinds of toothpaste with a wide variety of functions. Need to whiten your teeth? There’s a toothpaste for that. Have sensitive teeth, or need extra help preventing cavities? There’s a toothpaste for that too! Our beloved modern-day toothpaste contains the following: triclosan, fluoride, coloring, flavoring, sugar-free sweetener, and other ingredients that keep all your brushing experiences pleasant. Aren’t you glad you never had to brush your teeth with crushed bones?

Protect Your Oral Health Today!

Brushing your teeth every day is an essential way to maintain good oral health. Coming in for regular checkups and cleanings is important too and will significantly reduce future complications that could hurt your oral health and your wallet. Don’t wait to protect your mouth — call us today to make an appointment!

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