The History of Toothpaste: From 5000 BC to the Present

09/02/2010 09:50 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Well, in my last post, I talked about the history of toothbrushes, so it just seems "right" that I talk about the history of toothpaste. Not to mention that it's interesting, of course.

To understand the history of toothpaste, we have to start in the present for a second. Today's toothpastes are rather smooth, which is very unlike the substances used in years past. As you'll see in a moment, the very essence of early tooth care was "abrasion," and it stayed this way for a very long time. And even though "abrasion" is still a component in modern toothpastes, it's much less prevalent than it used to be.

Okay, on to the past!

We probably don't know exactly when a substance was first used on teeth. But research suggests that the Ancient Egyptians first developed a dental cream as far back as 3000-5000 BC. This dental cream was comprised of powdered ashes from oxen hooves, myrrh, egg shells, pumice, and water (the actual "toothpaste" was likely a powder at first, with the water probably added at the time of use). And while it probably tasted terrible, it likely provided a somewhat minimum level of tooth cleaning, at least in a "scraping away the bad stuff" sense.

Later, in Greece and Rome, we see more abrasives being added to the powder mixture, like crushed bones and oyster shells. More cleaning power, for sure, but still, the taste... Well, maybe it's not so bad. We know the Romans added flavoring, perhaps to help with bad breath and to make their paste more palatable. This flavoring was more or less powdered charcoal and bark (I'm not sure how tasty powdered charcoal really is, though.)

Around the same general timeframe time (500 BC or so), we find that China and India were using a powder/paste as well. The Chinese were particularly forward-thinking in adding flavoring, going with Ginseng, herbal mints, and salt. This probably tasted a lot better than the early Egyptians version.

I want to pause here for a second, because toothpaste development seems to have stopped at this point, and stays relatively stagnant for a very long time. And like many other inventions and customs, "toothpaste" generally worked its way westward. These "powder/pastes," used in conjunction with early toothbrushes (chewing sticks), likely made it so people two millennium ago were probably doing a bedtime routine similar to ours. Yes, their oral care wasn't as effective as ours, but it would be recognizable to us.

One more thing before I continue on: I don't want to make it sound like this was available to "everyone" -- it wasn't. If you were rich, you had access to tooth powders and chewing sticks and the like. If you were poor, you didn't.

Ok, let's continue forward... we have these crude powders/pastes until the 1800's. We see ingredients change somewhat, with soap being added in the early 1800's, and in the 1850's, we find an actual "paste" sold in jars (Colgate gets involved with mass production of this in 1873). These pastes still used fairly abrasive ingredients, which definitely scrapes away the bad stuff, but also does a number on enamel.

We see our first lead/tin alloy tubes shortly after... now we're really getting somewhere. And in 1914, the most prolific component of all was introduced -- fluoride (I've mentioned fluoride in the past as not being the greatest substance in the world, but used topically in toothpaste, it's ok.) WW2 produces a lead/tin shortage -- that, combined with the fact that lead leaks into the toothpaste, leads to the development of plastic tubes.

Abrasion is significantly reduced during this time as well -- more synthetic ingredients were added (such as sodium lauryl sulphate, which is a foaming agent), as well as sweeteners. Also, fluoride toothpaste became the de facto standard during the late 1950's and 1960's. And from the 1980's to the present day have seen all kinds of additions -- gels, whitening agents, toothpaste for sensitive teeth and so on. It's almost hard to keep up, really. But in reading back over the history, I find it very interesting that Ancient Romans and the like were, in general terms, doing what we do today.

So, has all this advancement been beneficial? In general terms, yes, it has. Good-tasting toothpaste (in "paste form") sold in tubes is convenient, and adding fluoride has certainly helped. But I'm not as convinced in regards to many of the other "new" ingredients. I wrote a post about this topic months ago, and the same opinion holds now -- things like sodium lauryl sulphate I can do without. In my career as a NYC Cosmetic Dentist, I've been asked about my opinion of toothpaste a lot. In general terms, I feel the more natural you can get, the better off you are. This is why I personally recommend the Supersmile brand that I talk about every so often. It's got all the good, and none of the bad. I like to think that several thousand years of knowledge went into it.

But I don't want to sound like a commercial -- whether you choose Supersmile, a health food store brand, or just any brand from the supermarket, it's certain you are getting better tooth care (and better tasting toothpaste) that our predecessors did. And that's a great thing, no matter how you slice (or brush) it!

Until next time, keep smiling!