The Many Bizarre Materials Used in Dentures and Dental Products Throughout History
The dental industry is surprisingly high-tech. A great deal of research and development goes into creating the products that you use every day. But that hasn’t always been the case, and history is littered with disgusting and macabre products and practices.
We’ve all heard of gruesome teeth pulling in a pre-anesthetic age. We’ve seen the tools, heard the stories, and imagined the suffering. But what you might not know is that the products that our ancestors used on a daily basis were often just as nightmare-inducing.
Bones and Shells in Toothpaste
Toothpaste predates toothbrushes, and it only makes sense. After all, the natural instinct is to use your finger. It might not be the most effective or hygienic way to clean your teeth, but before the discovery of germ theory and at a time when disease was rampant and clean water was scarce, none of that really mattered.
We have records of Roman and Greek hygiene practices and also have information that dates back to the Egyptians and Babylonians, all of which suggests that they used rudimentary pastes and powders. These “toothpastes” would be made from a base ingredient in combination with plant extracts and abrasives.
They weren’t that different from modern toothpastes and actually relied on the same principles, which is to create something that forms together, is abrasive enough to scrub plaque, and leaves a pleasant taste and fragrance.
The difference is that modern abrasives include aluminum oxides and silica gels, whereas our ancestors turned to crushed animal bones and seashells. They were white, harmless, abundant, and very abrasive. It might seem a little appalling by modern standards, but it was the perfect solution for smile-conscious Egyptians.
The Egyptians are known to have made cleaning solutions from a mixture of dried iris flowers, rock salt, pepper, and mint, as well as bones, shells, and even ashes.
More often than not, they were powders and not pastes. Powders were easier to store, carry, and create, and the user could turn them into a paste simply by adding a drop or two of water.
Early civilizations had a very firm grip on the importance of hygiene, particularly the Romans, who created basic sewer and water systems and ensured that all of their citizens had access to clean water and bathing facilities.
Another unique way that they maintained their health was to cover themselves with olive oil and then slowly scrape it off their skin. Again, it’s something that seems a little peculiar by modern standards, but it worked surprisingly well.
All of the dirt, grease, and other nastiness would mix with the oil, allowing it to be scraped away and discarded. Although it seems like an expensive use of olive oil, we’re talking about an empire that ruled most of the Mediterranean—they had plenty of it to go around!
The Romans are even said to have used charcoal in primitive toothpaste concoctions. Not only did they see it as an effective way to scrub plaque and tartar, but they also believed that it could remove bad smells and harmful compounds from the mouth. For much the same reason, charcoal continues to be used in modern toothpaste and has even experienced a resurgence in recent years!
It has also been said that burnt toast crumbs were used as a primitive form of toothpaste throughout the 17th, 18th, and even 19th century. We even found a few websites claiming that this is a great way to whiten your teeth and providing instructions on how to do just that! If so, then maybe our ancestors were onto something. It’s more likely, however, that they just used toast because it was cheap, abundant, and a great way to use every last scrap of leftover bread.
We definitely wouldn’t recommend scrubbing your teeth with the remnants of your breakfast!
Zinc in Dental Adhesive
Dental adhesive isn’t always necessary but it’s good to have it just in case. If your dentures haven’t been properly fitted, you’re doing something particularly taxing, or it has been several years and your mouth has changed shape, dental adhesive can be useful.
But if your dentures are very loose and you find yourself using lots of the stuff, you could be putting your health at risk. Dental adhesive can contain zinc, which is dangerous in large doses.
The body needs zinc. It may help to reduce inflammation, improve immune function, assist with muscle growth, and more. But to paraphrase Paracelsus, “the dose makes the poison”. In other words, everything can kill you in large enough doses, and if you’re using an excessive amount of dental adhesive, you could be exceeding those safe levels.
The problem is that the body requires a delicate balance of copper and zinc to maintain optimum health. If you’re consuming dangerous levels of zinc, you may suffer from copper deficiency, as well as zinc overdose.
In one incident, reported in 2015, a 65-year-old woman presented with low serum copper levels despite receiving an adequate dose. Her serum zinc was also normal, but doctors found very high levels of urinary zinc and pointed to her use of dental adhesive as the cause.
The good news is that the patient recovered after she was advised to switch to zinc-free dental adhesive. The bad news is that others haven’t been as lucky, and there has been at least one fatality associated with dental adhesive use, as well as many serious cases of toxicity and deficiency.
The link between dental adhesive and zinc toxicity/copper deficiency has been known for over a decade, and many manufacturers have removed zinc from their products as a result. It hasn’t been banned, as the risks associated with moderate use are very low and zinc is great for improving adhesive without causing irritation. However, the attitude toward zinc-containing products has changed significantly and many experts recommend using only zinc-free adhesives.
Does that mean that you need to throw out all of your zinc-containing adhesives? Not quite. Zinc is perfectly safe if you use it as directed and are otherwise healthy. If you have any sensitivities or pre-existing illnesses, you should speak with your dentist or doctor first. If not, just make sure you follow the instructions on the box.
You should also keep an eye out for the signs of zinc toxicity/copper deficiency, which include fatigue, muscle weakness, vision loss, memory loss, and brain fog. Of course, these are also the symptoms of getting old, so there’s a good chance you will have noticed a few of these, but the difference is that they tend to be more pronounced than you would expect normally.
Some of the other symptoms include skin sores, inflammation, easy bruising, and always feeling cold.
Human Teeth in Dentures
Dentures have been around for a lot longer than you might realize. Our ancestors have always prized a big smile and have understood the importance of keeping their teeth. They also had a habit of getting into scraps, going to war, and eating copious amounts of sugar, so missing teeth were common.
In an age before synthetic teeth, the easiest way to get something that looked and felt like the real thing was to get the real thing!
On occasion, they would save their own real teeth as soon as they fell out. These could then be cleaned and shaped to create dentures. As long as the tooth wasn’t completely destroyed, it could find its way back into the individual’s mouth. When that failed, they would take teeth from others.
There are reports of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves. Contrary to the popular myth, the first US president didn’t have wooden teeth, but he did wear rudimentary dentures and was concerned about his dental health throughout his life.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the demand for fake teeth skyrocketed across the Atlantic. Sugar was cheaper than ever, and Europeans were importing it by the ton, leading to more rotten teeth and more calls for quality dentures.
To keep up with the demand, scavengers would remove teeth from the dead bodies left to rot on European battlefields. The continent was perpetually at war, and this created an endless succession of rich pickings for those morbid and desperate enough to go through with it. The teeth would be collected in huge quantities, cleaned, polished, and then sold throughout Europe.
It’s fair to assume that the people buying the dentures probably didn’t know where the teeth actually came from, but eventually, the practice became so common that word filtered through to the people. These dentures became known as “Waterloo Teeth” after the famous battle in which a British-led coalition defeated Napoleon.
Soldiers were young and fit. They might not have had the best diets, but they were often young enough for that not to make much of a difference. Their teeth were strong and relatively healthy, and that’s what made them a target for scavengers.
The most expensive sets were set into an ivory base and could take several weeks to manufacture.
The practice began to die out by the middle of the 19th century, but it wasn’t uncommon to see full sets of “Waterloo Teeth” being advertised throughout this period. Many of them were shipped in from the United States, where the American Civil War created another macabre opportunity for those without morals or money.
The British Dental Association Museum has several sets of these teeth on show if you ever find yourself in the UK and fancy delving into the gruesome history of European dentistry.
In case you were wondering, modern denture teeth can be made from acrylic resin and some of the more expensive options are made from porcelain.
Acrylic resin is strong, cheap, and can be made to look like the real thing. It has countless applications and is used in everything from paint to aquariums, car tires, and more. It’s durable, versatile, and more importantly, it’s instantly better than having some dead person’s molars in your mouth!
Hog Hair on Toothbrushes
Toothbrushes have been around for a lot longer than you might realize, but early toothbrushes were very basic. The Egyptians, for instance, are thought to have used fragrant sticks that they chewed to release pleasant oils and clean their teeth, not unlike the modern dental sticks that you buy for dogs and cats.
Around 500-600 years ago, we began to see toothbrushes that closely resembled what we use today. They used wooden or bamboo handles with bristles inserted into the head. The difference is that these bristles were often made from hog hairs and in particular the coarse hairs on the back of the neck.
The bristles were cleaned and sterilized (by medieval standards), but it was still hog hair, and so it had a tendency to become soft and soggy and probably didn’t produce the most pleasant aroma, either. They were also said to have been very tough on the gums, as the bristles were hard and pointy.
These toothbrushes were first produced in China and eventually made their way to Europe. Englishman William Addis is often credited with inventing the first modern toothbrush, but they were actually available before Addis was born.
Addis did have a major influence on the creation of the modern toothbrush, though, as he mass-produced it after creating a prototype from a bone and bristles.
Hog hair toothbrushes were commonplace right up to the Second World War when nylon bristles began to take over.
If you think that hog hair toothbrushes are disgusting, spare a thought for the families that couldn’t afford them, as they would often just use a rag, and it wasn’t uncommon for the rag to be shared amongst family members. They would simply add a little “toothpaste” (often chalk or soot), add a drop or two of water, and then scrub.
This disgusting practice is thought to have been the thing that inspired Addis to develop his prototype. He is said to have been in prison at the time and after watching prisoners scrub their teeth with an old rag, he determined that there must be a better way.
Titanium Dioxide in Chewing Gum and Toothpaste
Chewing gum can be a great way to keep your teeth, mouth, and even your dentures healthy. It stimulates the flow of saliva, which helps to combat bacteria, reduce acidity, and keep your teeth and gums healthy. If you opt for a low-sugar variety (and a denture-friendly one if you wear dentures) then it could greatly reduce bacteria, eliminate bad breath, and so much more.
But sugar isn’t the only ingredient that you have to worry about in chewing gum. It can contain something known as titanium dioxide, which helps to give gum, toothpaste, and even candy a bright-white sheen.
The problem is that titanium dioxide has also been linked to higher rates of colorectal cancer and a host of stomach problems. In excess quantities, it could be very harmful, and there’s really no need for it to be there. Many of the potentially harmful ingredients in everyday items are used to preserve or protect, but titanium dioxide just makes things look a little better.
Experts have argued that while it doesn’t make you sick directly, it could “prime” you for disease by impacting the immune system and the way that the body responds to infection. Furthermore, because it is used in many chewing gums, toothpaste, and candies, consumers could be ingesting unsafe quantities without even realizing it.
Like titanium dioxide, triclosan is an ingredient that was used until very recently. Unlike titanium dioxide, it has now been phased out. Its use is still permitted, but it seems that most manufacturers have turned their backs on it due to the alarming research surrounding it.
Triclosan is an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal compound. It was added to toothpaste and other consumer products to reduce contamination. As noted above, such compounds are fairly common in the food, dental, and cosmetics industry, and while they aren’t exactly healthy, their benefits often outweigh their risks. The problem with Triclosan is that the benefits didn’t outweigh the risks.
Red flags were raised when it was discovered that short-term exposure to high levels of triclosan was enough to reduce certain thyroid hormones in mice. It has also been suggested that triclosan use could contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
The exact risk that triclosan poses to human health is not fully understood, but there are certainly a lot of warning signs and this was enough to force toothpaste manufacturers to make a move.
Triclosan is also used in many body-washes and other hygiene products, with the idea being that it will help to kill bacteria and provide a thorough clean. However, there is very little proof that it does. Generally, triclosan is considered safe when used in certain hygiene products—essentially anything that is not consumed. But its use is now discouraged in toothpaste and other oral/dental products.
Summary: Surprising Ingredients in Dental History
As you can see, the history of the dental sector is riddled with disgusting materials and dubious practices. Humans have gone to extreme lengths to clean their teeth and maintain their pearly white smile, and these worrisome practices aren’t as ancient as you might think. Or hope.
The good news is that we’re now living in a cleaner and more considered age. At XODENT, for instance, we go to great lengths to ensure that our products are safe, effective, and completely non-toxic.
We want to smile confidently and keep your dentures fresh, clean, and strong for many years to come. And we promise there are no hog hairs or oyster shells in sight!
Pickup your XODENT Kit today.