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Toothpaste: a Product That Evolved from Basic Human Need for Clean Teeth and Breath

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Clean teeth and fresh breath require cleansing the teeth, gums and mouth as a whole. Modern toothpaste provides a cleansing agent that is both effective and gentle on tooth enamel. Added fluoride helps strengthens teeth. Centuries ago, the options for cle

Before Toothpaste there was ...Whatever was Available

Before Colgate marketed the first commercial dentifrice product in 1873, early forms of tooth-scrubs were known and used in the ancient world. Usually made with items intended as much to cleanse the breath, such mixtures might be soot, or carbon black sweetened with fragrant oil or dried flower petals. This concoction was swished around in the mouth and expelled. Toothbrushes of the time were whatever could be used, ranging from simple ‘chewsticks’ or twigs, porcupine quills, feathers, -anything to reach those teeth and move the dentifrice around to get the job done. Just like toothpaste, the efficacy, form and function of the toothbrush would have a long road ahead.

As far back at first century A.D. tooth-cleaning concoctions intended to cleanse teeth were tried. Common abrasive agents like fine wood ash and bone ash of animals were used. Rinses of sweet goat’s milk were believed to freshen the breath, an early mouthwash perhaps? Buddha is said to have used a ‘tooth stick’ for rubbing the teeth, a gift from the Deity Sakka. The Indian health science of Ayurveda practiced chewing upon the branch of an evergreen bush called “Neem” which has been shown to have certain anti-fungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Another practice attributed to Ayurveda is ‘oil pulling,’ the rinsing of the mouth with cold-pressed oil to wash-away bacterial agents and plaque from the mouth for a ‘whole body’ health regimen.

Any dentifrice agent that was a fine powder and could be used as an abrasive to the teeth and leave them cleaner was considered. Powders were popular in the 19th century which included finely ground charcoal. Disgusting black color aside, the carbon in charcoal probably did actually sweeten the breath to some degree.


cuttle-bone, the internal body structure of squid

(image source)

Other cleaning agents would include ground cuttlebone and formulas that contained this natural calciferous marine product. The mildly abrasive qualities of powdered cuttlebone made a fairly decent polishing agent for more than just teeth. It could be used for cleaning countertops and cookware as well. Effective but gentle, it would clean and absorb soil (stains, debris, etc.) without causing damage.

Cuttlefish bone is the dried internal body part of squid. This is a gas-filled and chambered structure which provides buoyancy control to members of the Sepiidae family (such as octopuses, squid, nautiluses, etc.) The use of powdered cuttlebone in toothpaste was essentially a step on the right path to effective oral hygiene. Being a rich source of calcium, the powdered cuttlebone in the mouth actually helps redeposit calcium onto teeth, a job that saliva does naturally. Unintentionally, cuttlebone inclusion as a dentifrice was probably one of the first tooth formulas which not only cleansed the teeth but helped repair them on the microscopic level.

The 20th century saw the greatest increase of knowledge and use of effective toothpastes and cleansing rinses. Products that contain chlorophyll gave not only color but would also refresh the breath. Various other ingredients gained favor. Eucalyptus oil and cinnamon ingredients would be used. The problems of periodontal health (the health of the gums and bones of the mouth) became a major focus of oral and dental hygiene. The prevention of dental caries (cavities) was always a forefront goal. Modern science was finding chemicals both natural and manmade which would strengthen the tooth and prevent decay and well as improved tools (toothbrushes) that were more effective and less damaging to teeth and gums.

The use of fluorides in toothpaste greatly reduces dental decay and tooth loss. Several different chemical compounds of Fluoride have been employed over the years. Tin(II) fluoride, also known as Stannous Fluoride, is especially effective and does not become biologically inactive in the presence of calcium as the does the more oft-used compound Sodium Fluoride. What Fluoride products do is in the enamel, converts ‘apatite’ to ‘fluorapatite’ which is more resistant to erosion caused by harmful acid-producing bacteria in the mouth.

Probably one of the main reasons that Stannous Fluoride is not used so much today is that in dentifrice preparations it purportedly stains the teeth. Dentifrice products that still use stannous fluoride counter that proper brushing techniques prevent this deleterious effect. Essentially, if Stannous Fluoride-containing toothpaste stains your teeth you are not brushing correctly is the implied message.

Possibly too, adding a ‘detergent’ ingredient also would assist in this staining prevention. If a chelating agent were also used, it would prevent the stannous fluoride from causing stains on enamel. Stannous fluoride is the superior anti-cavity ingredient for your teeth but it has been superseded by the slightly less effective but more ‘consumer-friendly’ ("non-staining") alternative form sodium fluoride and monosodium fluoride. Monosodium phosphate is shown to be highly effective too and can actually rebuild lost enamel.

Other ingredients in modern toothpaste include foaming agents (such as sodium lauryl sulfate, etc,) flavoring for ensuring customer loyalty, color additives (titanium dioxide, for that ‘bright white’ color altruistically associated with ‘clean’) and humectants to prevent the paste from hardening and caking in the tube.

Modern Toothbrush

toothbrush with toothpaste

(image source)

At least one toothpaste brand (“Tom's of Maine”) contains all natural and gentle ingredients including a small amount of glycerin. Glycerin is a ‘wetting agent’ emollient that is also commonly available in your pharmacy. Glycerin makes your mouth moister during and long after brushing. It is a natural product derived from either animal, plant and mineral sources that provides a pleasant consistency to this product. It has flavor-extending properties as well, and also naturally helps to prevent the product from drying out or caking.

Glycerin is something safe and effective that should be added to all toothpaste products. Some ingredients that have been quietly removed from many toothpaste products for the bad effects they cause include the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate. This ‘foaming agent’ that has been shown to cause microscopic damage to delicate oral tissues, often leading to painful canker sores.

If you or children regularly develop these painful cankerous lesions on your gums, insides of the lips or palate, check the list of ingredients on your toothpaste brand. If it contains sodium lauryl sulfate that just may be the antagonistic ingredient causing the canker sores. You may want to consider switching toothpaste brands.

The first evidence of toothpaste use goes back to the time of (and probably even before) the ancient Egyptians. Their need and desire for clean teeth and fresh breath is no different than today’s need.

Modern toothpaste formulas are getting better and more effective. Dental hygiene and the understanding of diseases of the mouth has greatly improved. A good professional oral hygiene program and effective home regimen can even extend your life. Recent years have seen a corollary between plaques of the mouth and cardiovascular disease. Heart-heath can be impacted by poor dental hygiene. Switching to an effective toothbrush regularly is a good start towards prevention of vascular diseases.

Even the ancients would not have guessed that these were even related. It was just their desire for a healthy and clean mouth where it all began. The goal and the end effect then and today are one in the same.

1 comment

Johnny Dod
Posted on Feb 20, 2010

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