The Complete and Amazing History Of Toothpaste And Mouthwash


Where would we be without toothpaste? It doesn’t matter how good your brush is or how diligent you are when it comes to brushing and flossing, if you don’t have toothpaste, your teeth won’t be clean, and your mouth won’t be fresh.

That’s not all, either, as toothpaste can also help to whiten and strengthen your teeth while reducing the damage caused by bacteria and acid. It’s a powerful substance, and in a way, it’s been around for thousands of years.

Of course, our ancestors weren’t using Crest and Colgate, nor were they as obsessed with whitening toothpaste, but they still understood its importance and created their own rudimentary versions.

The Chicken or the Egg?

If you knew nothing about the history of dental hygiene and were asked to guess whether toothpaste or toothbrushes were invented first, you’d probably lean toward the latter. It only makes sense. 

Surely our ancestors developed a tool to clean their teeth before they created a paste to go along with it?

In fact, toothpaste likely existed long before toothbrushes did, and it’s not that unusual. As we shall discover when we go through the history of this substance, there were many points throughout history where it was common to use toothpaste or tooth powder without a brush. 

Early Toothpaste and Powder

Tooth powders were used around 5,000 years ago. It seems like a long time ago, and without any context, it might seem a little preposterous to think that humans were so obsessed with oral hygiene five millennia ago.

But we’re talking about the ancient Egyptians here, a civilization that built the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx. They established and controlled one of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world, and they didn’t just spend their days fighting, building, and worshipping their god-kings.

The Egyptians were incredibly advanced and they weren’t the only ones. They traded with city-states and empires across Africa, Greece, and modern-day Turkey. They had access to a lot of goods and ideas, met a lot of people, and knew more about health and wellbeing than many people give them credit for.

To care for their teeth, the Egyptians would often manufacture toothpowders from ox hooves, burnt eggshells, plant extracts, pumice, and/or spices.

Although it seems like an odd and even disgusting concoction, it’s actually very similar to what we use today.

Modern toothpaste is a mixture of abrasive compounds (pumice, eggshells, ox hooves), and flavors (plant extracts, spices). Sure, they’re a little more advanced and also contain detergents, frothing agents, and colorants, but the basic premise is the same.

The Egyptians understood that you needed something that was highly abrasive to scrub the teeth clean, as well as something sweet, fresh, and/or spicy to make it palatable.

They likely used their fingers to rub this substance into their teeth and may have also added water to turn it into a paste, although their saliva would have done that for them.

The Greeks borrowed some of these ideas from the Egyptians. At the time that the Egyptians were flourishing in North Africa, the Minoans and then the Myceneans were stamping their mark in the Mediterranean.

We don’t have a lot of recipes or texts that refer to early Greek tooth powder or toothpaste, but we do know that later Hellenic civilizations would use crushed oyster shells to create their own versions of tooth powder.

The same is true for the Romans, who conquered large parts of Europe and North Africa and adopted many technologies used by the Greeks. There are even stories of them using crushed animal bones, tree bark, and salt.

These abrasive compounds were freely available and were strong enough to scrub plaque from the teeth, leaving them white and fresh.

Even today, we use animal bones and shells to create products that are widely consumed, they’re just given a different name. Bone char, for instance, is made by burning animal bones and is then used by the sugar industry as a decolorizing filter. 

In other words, while these ancient tooth powders seem a little disgusting, they’re not all that different from the substances we use every day. 

So….No Toothbrushes?

In another guide on this blog, we looked at the history of toothbrushes and noted that the Egyptians also got there first. They used fragrant sticks and pieces of bark that they would either chew or cut and use as a brush. These “chewsticks” related a fragrant aroma and helped to scrub some of the plaque away, but were they used with toothpaste or tooth powder? 

Probably not. 

The truth is, we don’t really know. In fact, while we have a lot of information about early tooth powders and pastes, we don’t know how they were actually used.

It has been suggested that they used their fingers, which seems the most likely. After all, if they used any specially-made brushes, they would have probably mentioned it.

They may have used rags, as these were used much later on, but it’s all speculation.

A Forgotten Islamic Invention

In the 9th century, an Iraqi musician named Ziryab is said to have developed a toothpaste that everyone loved, but we don’t actually know what it contained or how it was used, and much of the man’s life has been lost to history. We don’t even know for sure if he actually created such a product, although that sort of ambiguity exists throughout the historical records.

If the stories are true, then Ziryab was quite the man. He is thought to have popularized personal grooming and inspired other men of the time to shave, cut their hair, and change their clothes according to the season.

He is said to have been a poet, a musician, a stylist, and a massively influential individual. He was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance, and if he did indeed create a paste or powder, it’s a massive shame that it was lost to time.

The paste was claimed to be “functional” as well as “pleasant”, suggesting that it helped to scrub the teeth while also tasting fresh and palatable. It became popular in large parts of Europe, including Spain, and helped to revolutionize the personal hygiene of countless Europeans.

One of the other stories about Ziryab is that he encouraged people to wash their clothes in salt, as opposed to rose water, which was customary at the time. The salt would work as an abrasive to scrub the clothes clean while also drawing out some of the stains. Because of this, and the fact that salt was used by the Romans many centuries earlier, it’s possible that salt was used in Ziryab’s toothpaste.

He may have also added rose water, which was clearly abundant at the time and would have helped to turn an unpleasant powder into a pleasant paste. Of course, we’re just speculating—we have no idea, but we’d certainly like to find out.

Middle Ages and Beyond

In the middle ages, the world experienced periods of growth and decline, as major population centers in Europe and Asia were hit by successive waves of war and death. It was a pretty scary time to be alive, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a TV show, film, or game that depicts the era as anything other than utterly terrifying.

But it was still a period of growth. It’s true that most of the inventions from this period were designed with death and destruction in mind, including longbows, gunpowder, cannons, and guns, but it also witnessed the invention of Gothic architecture, improved water mills, and the printing press.

The middle ages also have a bad reputation when it comes to cleanliness. It’s true that they weren’t the cleanest people, and they weren’t as dedicated to personal hygiene as the Greeks and Romans that came before them. But that wasn’t true for everyone in every country and during every era.

In fact, we have a lot of evidence to suggest that some people bathed regularly and used homemade soaps, fragrances, and even tooth powers.

These powders would often be added to scraps of linen and then rubbed against the teeth. The majority were homemade and would consist of basic fragrances, flavors, and abrasives. They may have used salt, soot, ground shells/bones, common garden herbs (including sage), and spices like pepper.

As sugar became more widely available and began to decimate the teeth of Europeans, toothpaste became more of a necessity. 

Wine and vinegar may have also be used, although such acidic substances would never make it into modern toothpaste. Some individuals chewed on fragrant seeds like fennel and used copious amounts of herbs to freshen their breath.

It’s true that people in the middle ages were a little more “fragrant” than we are today, but they still had a sense of smell and the ability to feel embarrassed. More often than not, they smelled not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t have a choice. They didn’t have access to copious amounts of clean water and soap, and they spent their days working on the farm or in the tanneries.

They sought quick fixes more than anything. When it came to body odor, that meant using strong-smelling fruits and herbs. As for their oral health, it often meant grabbing whatever sweet-smelling substance they could find and chewing until the morning breath went away.

Spare a thought for your Medieval ancestors the next time you frantically chew gum to get rid of coffee/morning breath before an important meeting or date.

Pre-Modern Toothpaste

In the 18th century, recipes called for some bizarre ingredients, and people would follow these to create their own. One of the most common was burnt bread. As weird as it sounds, it actually works, and if you search Google for “burnt bread teeth whitening”, you’ll find many different articles and “how-to’s” recommending it.

Personally, we wouldn’t recommend using burned bread, but if you happen to find yourself three hundred years in the past and have to choose between bread and crushed bones, it’s probably the most palatable option.

In the 19th century, homemade tooth powder was still common, and, in their desperation, poor households would resort to using soot, crushed rock, and salt on rags that they passed around the entire family. It was a case of just using any abrasive that they could get their hands on, regardless of the damage it could do to their teeth and their gums.

In the middle of the 19th century, a popular publication wrote about the use of these rudimentary tooth powders and noted that they did more harm than good. It also referenced many powder mixes that were being sold in local shops, often made with cheap ingredients and designed with profit in mind.

The publication recommended pulverized charcoal, instead, which isn’t exactly great for your health, either. Activated charcoal is making a comeback as an alternative toothpaste, but excessive use could harm the enamel as it is highly abrasive.

Modern Toothpaste

Toothpaste as we know it today began to take shape toward the end of the 19 century. This is also when fluoride was first added to toothpaste. 

During the Second World War, oral hygiene exploded. Many American soldiers were given brushes and toothpaste products in their ration packs and practiced daily brushing. When they returned, they continued and influenced many of their friends and family.

After the war, the economy boomed and by the 1960s,  the oral hygiene industry was the biggest it had ever been, with toothbrushes and toothpaste in most homes across the country. 

There have been some gradual improvements in the last half-century or so, including remineralizing toothpaste, but most of these changes have been minor and have flown under the radar for the general public. If you ask the average person what the biggest change in toothpaste has been over the last 70 years, they’ll probably tell you that it’s the plastic tubes or the different colored stripes.

What about Mouthwash?

We have spent a lot of time talking about toothpaste and tooth powder, but what about mouthwash? It’s not as important as a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, but it certainly has its uses. 

Mouthwash is designed to kill bacteria and freshen your mouth, and while it needs to be used with caution (alcohol mouthwash can dry your mouth out and do more harm than good) it’s a worthy addition to your oral hygiene routine.

The idea of mouthwash has probably been around for as long as toothbrushes and maybe even toothpaste. If we define mouthwash as something to clean and freshen the breath, there’s a good chance that the Egyptians were using it after their homemade powders. 

After all, they would have needed something to get the taste of burnt shells out of their mouth, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that they might have added some herbs or spices to the water. It’s not quite the same as commercially-prepared mouthwash, though.

The Romans are said to have used bottles of urine to rinse their mouths out, as they believed that the ammonia would disinfect and clean. Other disgusting versions of mouthwash followed, and urine remained an ingredient throughout, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that we saw modern mouthwashes.

The “father of modern microbiology”, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, is often said to have created the first mouthwash after discovering oral bacteria and looking for ways to kill them. Listerine was created a number of decades later and while it was initially created for cleaning surgical wounds, it began to be sold over the counter as a mouthwash in 1914.

The History of Toothpaste and Mouthwash

As you can see, the history of toothpaste is a vast and varied one. It’s full of weird ingredients and innovative people, and it’s proof that humans are always looking for ways to keep themselves clean, improve their smiles, and smell better!

Not a lot has changed since we witnessed the birth of modern toothpaste, but in the last few years, we’ve seen a shift toward a more environmentally friendly option. Powders are selling more than ever, and you can also now buy your toothpaste in tablet form.

Just pop a tablet in your mouth, chew, and start brushing. It is one application per tablet and there are hundreds to a jar, reducing the number of plastic tubes that get sent to landfill every year. 

Of course, if you’re a denture wearer, none of this is relevant to you, but you’ll be happy to know that there are also eco-friendly mouthwash products out there. They work in a similar way, only you add the tablet to water, rinse, and then spit. 

It’s a small change and it took a long time for us to get there, but the same could be said for the history of toothpaste in general. After all, it’s taken us 5,000 years to go from products that use abrasive powders, scented extracts, and flavorings to ones that use abrasive pastes, scented extracts, and flavorings!

Then again, when you’re onto something good, why change it?

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