Would you clean your teeth with salt and pepper? How about burned ashes?
If you’re used to toothpaste that comes from a tube, this might sound bizarre or uncomfortable. But these are just a few ways people have kept their mouths clean over the centuries, and they’re not entirely different from the toothpaste you buy in the store.
These older toothpastes used abrasive ingredients—like salt or ashes—to scrape the gunk off of teeth. As the video above explains, today’s manufactured toothpastes have abrasives in them, too. But modern abrasives like hydrated silica—the same thing that’s in those little packets that come in new shoes and bags, except with water—is a lot more gentle than the crushed eggshells, pumice, and other things that people used before.
Just like today, early toothpastes were flavored. An Egyptian recipe from the fourth century A.D included salt, pepper, mint, and dried iris flower. After dentist Heinz Neuman tried the recipe on his own teeth in 2003, he told the Telegraph that his “mouth felt fresh and clean.” And although it made his gums bleed, he added that “this recipe would have been a big improvement on some of the soap toothpastes used much later,” referring to manufactured toothpastes before World War II.
In 14th- and 15th-century England, one of the most common tooth cleaners was a mixture of honey, salt, and rye flour or rye meal, says Martha Carlin, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The honey served the dual purpose of holding the ingredients together and providing a nice flavor.
Another fairly common recipe of the period called for the burnt branches of a broom plant mixed with burnt alum. The result was a black, ashy “tooth powder” that you could rub on your teeth. Unlike the salt-honey-rye flour mixture, “my guess is that [this] recipe would have tasted terrible,” Carlin says.
Though most medieval tooth-cleaning recipes are for pastes or powders, Carlin has also found one that says, in Middle English: “to make teeth fair and white, take the bark of the root of the mastic tree and rub well the teeth therewith.” The recipe refers to a Mediterranean tree, which people in that region had long used to keep their breath fresh.
The first mass-manufactured toothpaste was released in 1873 under the Colgate brand. Back then, the paste came in a jar. Two decades later, the company began selling toothpaste in a collapsible tube. Over time, it replaced home recipes and grew to take over an entire aisle of the drugstore. Now, you can choose from toothpastes with various ingredients and flavors.
And while the new flavors of modern toothpaste, like chocolate or cinnamon, might seem unappetizing, it’s nothing compared to what some of the Romans used to use. Ammonia whitens teeth, and we produce ammonia through our urine. That means Romans would … well, you get the idea.
This video is part of a series called Ingredients. Each week, host George Zaidan re-creates household products like toothpaste, lipstick, or shaving cream using only natural ingredients. New episodes premiere every Thursday on National Geographic’s YouTube channel.