Rinse and Spit: The History of Toothpaste


toothpaste, history“Colgate introduced its Crème Dentifrice, which came in a jar, in the 1850s. Before that, toothpastes were usually powders. It was in the 1890s that Colgate came out with the first toothpaste in a tube. Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Without your teeth, life would be tough. Sure, we have all sorts of fancy dentistry tricks these days, but nothing tops the chompers we’re born with. In fact, in 2010 rocker Patti Smith gave the commencement address at the Pratt Institute in New York, and those graduating seniors got some incredibly sound advice:

"Now that I’m here, my greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care," Smith joked. "My generation had a rough go, dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health."

And it might be true that our big dental procedures are considerably better than they were in the middle of the last century, but it’s the maintenance Smith was probably talking about. We’ve got to scrub our teeth each and every day, or else bacteria will calcify into tartar, which is where the tooth troubles really begin. Keeping all your teeth in your head and avoiding life-threatening infection has always required constant vigilance. Which is where toothpaste comes in.

The Chew Stick

Nobody knows who invented the toothbrush — most ancient civilizations seem to have had some variation of a frayed "chew stick" they used to keep their chompers clean. But don’t chompers also need some sort of, well, cleaning agent? Is that minty, plaster-like goo we smear on our modern chewing sticks just capitalist snake oil?

Not if history has anything to say about it. Toothpaste might actually predate the toothbrush. While there’s evidence ancient Egyptians were using toothbrushes as far back as 3500 BCE, recipes for tooth powder have been found that date back to 5000 BCE. The earliest Egyptian tooth powder recipe contained plenty of abrasives to scrape off all the sticky residue: the ashes of burnt egg shells and oxen hooves mixed with pumice seemed to be popular. By the fourth century, Egyptians had fancied up their tooth powder with abrasives like rock salt and flavorings like mint and peppercorns — they even added dried iris flower, perhaps because it was associated with purification. Good thing our tooth enamel is harder than bone — or even iron or steel. If it wasn’t, those Egyptians would have brushed their teeth right down to nubs.

But when this recipe was revealed in 2003 at a dental conference in Vienna, Austrian dentist Heinz Neuman told The Telegraph he tried it and it wasn’t half bad.

"I found that it was not unpleasant," said Neuman. "It was painful on my gums and made them bleed as well, but that’s not a bad thing, and afterwards my mouth felt fresh and clean. I believe that this recipe would have been a big improvement on some of the soap toothpastes used much later."

Around the world, different cultures continued mixing crushed abrasives like oyster shell or bone and nice-tasting herbs like mint and ginseng together to clean teeth and keep halitosis at bay. Ancient Romans reportedly used urine to whiten their teeth. But as with literally everything else, the Middle Ages didn’t really do much for toothpaste technology. During this time, Europeans settled on a mixture of honey, salt and rye flour, which they supplemented by giving their teeth a good scrubbing with the bark of certain trees.

Toothpaste Goes Mainstream

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the toothpaste biz as we know it really started heating up. Recipes for tooth powders and pastes that included abrasives like charcoal, chalk and burned bread crumbs, as well as incense like dragon’s blood, were popular in England until 1850, when Colgate introduced its first Crème Dentifrice, which came in a jar. Mass production of this product started in the 1870s and 20 years later, they introduced the collapsible tube. And from then on, toothpaste was a thing.

Before World War II, most toothpastes on the market were sold in a lead tube. They also contained soap, which was unnecessary and in some cases even counter-productive, but we have this hangup about wanting everything to foam. In fact toothpastes contain soap — namely, sodium lauryl sulfate — because it’s not clean unless it’s foamy! But soap also helped maintain an even, creamy texture. We get this smooth texture today with humectants like sorbitol, glycerin and propylene glycol, which have the added bonus of being a little sweet.

Fluoride was first added to toothpaste in 1914, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was proven to fight cavities. And modern toothpaste no longer uses chalk as an abrasive — we most often use hydrated silica, which is exactly the same stuff you find in those little packets in your vitamin bottles that you keep around the house in case your phone falls in the toilet.

Toothpaste manufacturers make it so easy for us nowadays. We don’t have to put urine or dragon’s blood in our mouths anymore! Don’t you think it’s about time to go brush your teeth?

Now That’s Interesting

The first American patent on a toothbrush was given to H. N. Wadsworth, (patent number 18,653) on Nov. 7, 1857.

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