Tooth Care: From Egyptians to Buddha and Beyond


Tombs of ancient Egyptians contain tooth sticks buried with their owners and Buddha used a “tooth stick”. Early toothpaste was made from ashes, blood and even urine.

Toothbrushing goes back to 3000 BC when Babylonians and Egyptians made a brush by fraying the end of a twig. About 1600 BC the Chinese developed “chewing sticks” made from aromatic tree twigs that freshened the breath. Records cite Buddha’s use of a “tooth stick” from the God Sakka.

First Brush Bristles from Pig Necks

The Chinese are thought to have invented the first natural bristle toothbrush, using bristles from pigs’ necks and attaching them to a bone or bamboo handle. Europeans refined the idea into a gentler brush made from horsehairs or feathers.

Animal bristles continued to be used until DuPont invented nylon. Now the toothbrush is a scientific instrument which comes in diverse colors, shapes and sizes. It’s a tool with modern ergonomic designs and safe and hygienic materials.

Egyptians are thought to have started using a paste to clean their teeth as far back as 5000 BC. Greeks and Romans used toothpaste and people in China and India were doing so around 500 BC.

Crushed Bones Used in Toothpaste

Then, as now, toothpaste was used to keep teeth and gums clean, whiten teeth and freshen the breath. The ingredients were, however, quite primitive. Burnt eggshells, crushed bones and oyster shells were used to provide the abrasive element. The paste might be made of ox hoof ashes, or powdered charcoal or bark. The Chinese used ginseng, herbal mints and salt.

In the 1800s ingredients included soap, chalk, ground charcoal or betel nut.

Prior to 1850, toothpastes were usually powders. During the1850s a toothpaste called a crème dentifrice came in a jar. In 1873, Colgate started mass production of toothpaste in jars. In the late 1890s Colgate introduced toothpaste in a tube. Soap continued to be in toothpaste up until about 1945.

Flouride and Modern Additives

Flouride toothpastes were introduced in 1914 to help prevent decay. In the 1950s in America toothpastes were developed to help prevent or treat specific diseases and conditions, such as gingivitis and tooth sensitivity. Chlorophyll was introduced as a breath freshener. The most recent advances in toothpastes have included the manufacture of whitening toothpastes and toothpaste containing Triclosan, which provides extra protection against caries, gum disease, plaque, calculus and bad breath.

Dentists claim to have recently discovered that the iris has properties effective in fighting gum disease. Too bad they didn’t know more about dental history. A document written in the fourth century AD gives a recipe for toothpaste that includes one drachma of dried iris flower.