What Is the History of Toothpaste?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
A toothbrush with toothpaste on it.
A toothbrush with toothpaste on it.

Toothpaste use extends back as far as 5000 BC and has a longer history than toothbrushes. Many ancient civilizations used some type of toothpaste to clean their teeth, though it was often used in powder form rather than as a paste. The history of toothpaste varies within each country, however, and each culture had its own recipes and rituals for keeping the teeth clean. The Egyptians were among the first to use toothpaste and often incorporated ingredients such as charcoal and egg shells into it, and odd ingredients such as soap were common in some areas for centuries. Many experts believe Indian and Chinese cultures also began using it in the 5th century BC.

Some Egyptians toothpaste recipes included the ashes from ox hooves.
Some Egyptians toothpaste recipes included the ashes from ox hooves.

The Egyptians created their early toothpastes with a variety of ingredients. Some Egyptian toothpaste recipes may have included burned egg shells, ashes from oxen hooves, myrrh, pumice and water mixed together. Many recipes were used before the invention of the toothbrush, however, so the Egyptians used the ends of sticks, often called chew sticks, to apply their toothpaste.

Toothpaste has evolved to include various formulas for children, sensitive teeth, and whitening purpoes.
Toothpaste has evolved to include various formulas for children, sensitive teeth, and whitening purpoes.

In the early history of toothpaste, it is thought that the ancient Greeks and Romans preferred to add harder objects to their toothpaste recipes in order to create a rough, abrasive paste that would clean well. This was achieved by grinding up oyster shells and bones. Charcoal and bark were also added to Roman toothpaste recipes, as were flavorings to freshen the breath.

Baking soda can be used an an alternative to toothpaste, and is also a common ingredient in commercial pastes and powders.
Baking soda can be used an an alternative to toothpaste, and is also a common ingredient in commercial pastes and powders.

The Chinese had a variety of recipes for toothpaste as well, and often utilized herbs and salt in the hopes of cleaning their teeth. To freshen the breath, the Chinese chewed on fragrant sticks from trees. Many experts on the history of toothpaste believe the Chinese also invented the first toothbrush during the 15th century BC.

From the 1800s until 1945, many toothpaste recipes contained soap that provided a smoother texture. After 1945, however, ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate were used for this purpose. The texture of the paste with the smoothing ingredients was much like the toothpastes used in modern times. Chalk was also a common ingredient in toothpastes in the mid-to-late 1800s, and betel nut was regularly included in the common toothpaste recipes used in England.

Betel nuts were often include in toothpaste in the 1800s.
Betel nuts were often include in toothpaste in the 1800s.

During the later history of toothpaste, the product continued to evolve. Advanced whitening formulas were created and fluoride was added, for instance. Fluoride was found to prevent tooth decay, and whitening formulas were used to prevent the yellowing of tooth enamel. Specialty toothpastes also became commonplace, including formulas for those with temperature-sensitive teeth, sensitive gums, and dry mouth symptoms.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments

Ana1234

@pastanaga - I don't think that prehistoric humans really needed all that much more wear out of their teeth because they simply wouldn't live that long. And lots of animals suffer from mouth disease as well. I think it's just the price you pay for having a body part that is constantly in a humid environment and covered in the kind of stuff that bacteria likes to eat.

pastanaga

@Iluviaporos - Well, some of these ingredients are a bit questionable, although some might have done a bit of good. Charcoal is very absorbent, for example and the rougher materials might have managed to scour some stains off teeth, but they would have also eventually worn down enamel (which is why it's not a great idea to constantly use tooth whitening products, even today).

I wish our teeth weren't so vulnerable to damage from the activities we need them for. It seems ridiculous that we have to go to so much trouble to keep them healthy.

lluviaporos

I can't imagine that betel nut would have been all that good for teeth. As far as I know it tends to stain them red, which is why people in countries where it is commonly used tend to have red mouths. Plus, it is extremely bitter. I have never been able to bring myself to try it more than once.

It might have antiseptic properties though, for all I know.

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    • A toothbrush with toothpaste on it.
      A toothbrush with toothpaste on it.
    • Some Egyptians toothpaste recipes included the ashes from ox hooves.
      Some Egyptians toothpaste recipes included the ashes from ox hooves.
    • Toothpaste has evolved to include various formulas for children, sensitive teeth, and whitening purpoes.
      Toothpaste has evolved to include various formulas for children, sensitive teeth, and whitening purpoes.
    • Baking soda can be used an an alternative to toothpaste, and is also a common ingredient in commercial pastes and powders.
      Baking soda can be used an an alternative to toothpaste, and is also a common ingredient in commercial pastes and powders.
    • Betel nuts were often include in toothpaste in the 1800s.
      Betel nuts were often include in toothpaste in the 1800s.