Dental Care Throughout History

There are so many available types of dental care products today. Herbal, fluoridated, sensitivity, tartar control and children’s toothpaste, manual, electric, eco-friendly toothbrushes and so many other types of tools are available to most developed and developing countries. However, this array of oral care products has only been around since the 1950s. So how did the dental hygiene practices look before then?

 Even though past generations did not have the products which exist now, oral hygiene has been a priority to wellbeing since ancient times. Historical documents from 5,000 BCE reveal that humans firmly believed that worms were the primary reason for cavities, and toothpicks were used to remove food residue in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In 1700 BCE, Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian text, reveals information about tooth diseases and various remedies for toothache.

In Ancient Greece, Asclepius, the God of Medicine and healing, was believed to be one of the first advocates of dental health around 1200 BCE. This is why the official symbol of dentistry includes a snake, a symbol of rebirth for ancient Greeks, and two Greek letters, “Δέλτα” and “Όμικρον”, depicted as the triangle and the circle respectively. Later, Aristotle and Hippocrates wrote more detailed texts about tooth decay treatments, teeth extraction with forceps, and stabilization techniques for loose teeth and fractured jaw bones using wires, very similar to the modern approach. Around the 2nd century BC, an ancient civilization in Italy, called the Etruscans, practiced dental prosthetics and performed dental restorations using gold.

The First Toothpaste

 Considering the mysterious concoctions ancient civilizations came up with to clean their teeth, we have to thank the Egyptians for utilizing mint and adding it to their kind of toothpaste. The Greeks’ and Romans’ first form of dental cream was made of broken bones, myrrh, ash, eggshells, volcanic rocks, oxen hooves, and charcoal. Asian civilizations have added herbs and spices, such as ginseng and salt, to improve their taste and cleansing properties. The abrasive mixture was believed to successfully clean the surface of the teeth and remove food residue.

The ancient Egyptian formula of the dental cream comprised a mix of rock salt, mint, dried iris flowers, and pepper. Despite causing bleeding gums, researchers claim it was perhaps the most effective form of toothpaste compared to its successors, sharing a lot of similarities with its modern version.

In the late 18th century, people experimented with a powder mostly made of burnt bread to clean their teeth. A few decades later, a dentist called Peabody was the first to add soap to the toothpaste for better oral hygiene and in 1850, John Harris added chalk to the mixture. In 1873, the first commercially used toothpaste with a pleasant smell and texture was launched by Colgate and it was sold in jars. Two decades later, Dr. Washington Sheffield started selling toothpaste in collapsible tubes for sanitary purposes, so that people could use it safely, without risking their own hygiene.

In the 20th century, dental experts added fluoride to toothpaste, as they had discovered how effective it was against dental cavities. After World War II, toothpaste manufacturers replaced the soap with other emulsifying agents to produce a smoother result. In the following decades, herbal, fluoride-free, whitening, and even edible toothpastes hit the market.

The First Toothbrush

Thanks to technological advancements, the oral hygiene industry has expanded to innovative dental care products such as the electric toothbrush. The first-ever form of toothbrush was nothing but a wooden, pencil-sized stick. Historians claim that the Babylonians and Egyptians were the first ones to use frayed twigs to clean their teeth as early as 3500 BCE. They chewed on one side of the stick to soften it up and resemble a brush, and they kept the other end sharp, like a toothpick.

 In the 15th century, the Chinese created the first toothbrush with bristles by gluing pig’s hairs to a bamboo stick or carved bones. At the time, Europeans used cloths and sponges to remove and polish their teeth. When the toothbrush designed in China was taken to Europe, the harsh pig’s hair was replaced by horsehair or feathers for a softer “brush”.

 The “founder” of the toothbrush was William Addis from England, who invented the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780. While in prison, he carved a cattle bone for a handle and he used batches of wild pig’s hair for the brush part. His prototype was then given to manufacturers and it was available across the country. During World War I, the USA manufactured toothbrushes made of nylon bristles and celluloid handles. This type of material made it easier to sell toothbrushes in more areas around the world and it was the beginning of the manual toothbrush, as we know it. The first electric toothbrush sold in the US was the Broxodent, manufactured by a company named Squibb in the 1960s. More companies optimized this type of product over the next few years.

The First Mouthwash

 The origin story of the mouthwash is almost as unorthodox as the one of the toothpaste. There are mentions of it in the literature of a few civilizations, but the most common appears to be the Roman. Historical documents reveal that Romans used imported bottled urine to rinse their mouths in AD 1. Despite it being a quite eccentric choice, ammonia, which is found in high levels in urine, has cleaning and disinfecting properties. It became so popular that the emperor Nero taxed the trade and it was widely used until the 19th century.

Other mouthwash peculiarities throughout history included tortoise blood, white wine, goat’s milk, a mixture of berries, vinegar, and mint leaves, and also cold water. Around the 1500s, people also gargled a solution of mint and vinegar to fight bad breath and clean their teeth. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, also known as the father of modern microbiology, discovered that a mouthwash solution with alcohol or ammonia could effectively kill oral bacteria. Thanks to his discovery, the mouthwash of today ensures not only gum and teeth health but also fresh breath!

The First Dental Floss

The dental floss gained popularity a lot later than the other oral care products. A New Orleans dentist named Dr. Levi Spear Parmly first suggested the use of a silk thread to clean the areas between the teeth in 1815. As the rest of the dental care products became more popular towards the end of the century, that’s when dental floss was patented and available in the market. The silk used in dental floss was the same material used for the stitches but later was replaced for nylon, because of its durability. This improvement also led to the production of waxed floss, which is a stronger, slightly thicker option, ideal for tightly spaced teeth because it’s easier to glide between the teeth. Similar to the rest, the variety of dental floss has expanded over the years, taking advantage of new materials and new technological techniques.


History shows that human societies have cared about their oral health for centuries, long before all the different kinds of toothpastes, toothbrushes, and other oral care products. Prehistoric civilizations used no dental tools to clean their teeth, which were mostly healthy thanks to their diet. When the human populations turned to farming, their heavy grain-based diets led to plaque buildup and hence, oral bacteria growth.

It’s important to acknowledge the role of nutrition in our oral health and utilize all the dental care products and treatments which are available to us to lead a healthy life with a bright smile.