The History of Toothpaste

The History of Toothpaste

Ever wonder where toothpaste and mouthwash came from? Have you ever thought about what people used for toothpaste before the invention of Crest, Colgate, or Aquafresh? (North American brand name toothpaste). Below are some exciting points from facts and recipes that may help satisfy your curiosity – or spur it on!!

Back in the Days of Buddha

The activity of keeping a clean mouth dates back to the religious figure Buddha. It has been recorded that he would use a “tooth stick” from the God Sakka as part of his hygiene regimen.

In 23 – 79 AD, the practice of oral hygiene include:

  • Drinking goats milk for sweet breath
  • Ashes from burnt mice heads, rabbit heads, wolf heads, ox heels, and goats’ feet were thought to benefit the gums. (This probably wouldn’t go over very well today)
  • Picking the bones out of wolves’ excrement and wearing them (maybe in the form of a necklace?) was considered a form of protection against toothaches.
  • Washing your teeth with the blood from a tortoise three times a year was a sure bet against toothaches.
  • Mouthwashes were known to consist of pure white wine or (get ready for this one) old urine, especially for this purpose.

The 18th Century

In the 18th century, toothpaste was a far cry from the minty, foaming tubes we use today. Instead, people used a variety of ingredients to clean their teeth. One common recipe involved mixing burnt bread with salt and vinegar. This mix was meant to act as an abrasive to scrub away plaque and debris from the teeth.

Another popular option was a paste made of honey, dried flowers, and alum. This paste had antiseptic properties that would help reduce bad breath and fight bacteria in the mouth. It also contained astringent properties that could help reduce bleeding gums or other oral issues.

Finally, some people used herbs such as sage or mint leaves to brush their teeth with. This would help freshen your breath and provide some antibacterial benefits too. Though none of these methods provided the same level of cleaning power as modern toothpaste does, they were still helpful for maintaining oral health in the 18th century.

The earliest record of an actual toothpaste was in 1780 and included scrubbing the teeth with a formula containing burnt bread. (A typical North American breakfast)

Other toothpaste around this time called for:

  • 1 1/2 oz. Dragons blood (So that’s where they all went!!)
  • 1 1/2 oz. cinnamon
  • 1 oz. burnt alum

Beat the above ingredients together and use them every second day.

The 19th Century

In the 19th Century, toothpaste was very different than what we use today. It was made from chalk, soap, baking soda, and charcoal powder. These ingredients were mixed with water to create a paste-like substance used to clean teeth. Many people added herbs or spices like peppermint or cinnamon for flavor and scent.

The primary purpose of using toothpaste in the 19th Century was to remove plaque and food debris from the teeth. People would rub the paste onto their teeth and then rinse it with water afterward. This practice was not as effective as modern toothpaste, but it did help to reduce plaque buildup and bad breath.

Overall, toothpaste in the 19th Century was far less advanced than what we have today. However, it still served an important purpose in helping people maintain good oral hygiene.

  • In the 19th Century, charcoal became very popular for teeth-cleaning purposes.
  • Most toothpaste at this time was in the form of a powder.
  • The purpose of the toothpowder was not only to clean the teeth but to give them fresh breaths. (Hmmm….that idea isn’t so outdated!!)
  • The succulent strawberry (still available today) was considered a “natural” solution for preventing tartar and giving fresh breath.
  • In 1855, the Farmers Almanac included this recipe for an appropriate toothpaste:
    1 oz. myrrh (fine powder)
    Two spoonfuls of your best honey (This does not refer to your significant other!!)
    A pinch of green sage mix and use every night on wet teeth.
  • Other toothpaste included:
    2 oz. cuttlefish bone
    1 oz. cream of tartar
    Two drachms drop lake
    15 drops clover oil powder, mix, sift.

The 20th Century

The 20th century saw several significant advances in toothpaste technology. In the early 1900s, toothpaste was usually sold as a powder and contained ingredients like soap, chalk, and talc. By the 1920s, this had evolved into a paste form with added flavoring agents like peppermint oil to make brushing more pleasant.

In the 1950s, fluoride was added to many kinds of toothpaste for its cavity-fighting properties. This marked a significant shift in oral hygiene practices and helped to reduce the rate of tooth decay significantly. The 1960s saw further advances in toothpaste technology with the introduction of tartar control formulas designed to prevent plaque buildup on teeth.

Today, modern toothpaste is formulated with additional ingredients such as enzymes and whitening agents that offer enhanced benefits for oral health. Many also come in specialized forms, such as gels and liquids that cater to specific needs or preferences.

  • Liquid cleansers (mouth rinses) and pastes became more popular, often containing chlorophyll to give a fresh green color.
  • Bleeding gums became a concern, as well as aching teeth.
  • In 1915 leaves from certain trees in South East Asia (Eucalyptus) were beginning to be used in mouthwash formulas.

So….what’s in the toothpaste of the 90s?

  • sodium monofluorophosphate (not to be confused with MSG)
  • color
  • flavoring
  • fluoride
  • foaming agents
  • detergents
  • humectants (prevent the paste from hardening)
  • Herbal toothpaste has gained popularity for people looking for a “natural” toothpaste or those who don’t want fluoride in their dental cleansers. Some herbal toothpaste contains:
    peppermint oil
    plant extract (strawberry extract)
    special oils and cleansing agents

Hey, didn’t we see these ingredients in the toothpaste of the early 19th Century?

And the 21st Century

Your guess is as good as ours!! If the trends of the 20th Century continue, we should see more toothpaste that whitens and brighten the teeth, are canker sore friendly, and give you the ultimate brushing or rinsing experience.

The more things change, the more they stay the same!

The ancient Egyptian recipe for toothpaste

The world’s oldest-known formula for toothpaste, used more than 1,500 years before Colgate began marketing the first commercial brand in 1873, has been discovered on a piece of dusty papyrus in the basement of a Viennese museum.

In faded black ink made of soot and gum arabic mixed with water, an ancient Egyptian scribe has carefully described what he calls a “powder for white and perfect teeth.”

When mixed with saliva in the mouth, it forms a “clean toothpaste.”

According to the document, written in the fourth century AD, the ingredients needed for the perfect smile are one drachma of rock salt – a measure equal to one-hundredth of an ounce – two drachmas of mint, one drachma of dried iris flower and 20 grains of pepper, all of them crushed and mixed.

The result is a spicy paste that one Austrian dentist who tried it said made his gums bleed but was a “big improvement” on some toothpaste formulae used as recently as a century ago.


  • Toothpaste is an abrasive paste (an abrasive is something that will scratch or grind something)
  • In the case of toothpaste, it grinds away the leftover food and plaque on your teeth with the help of your toothbrush.
  • The abrasive in toothpaste is called Dicalcium phosphate dihydrate, making up about a 5th of a tube of toothpaste.
  • The other central part of toothpaste is the paste which is made up of water and things to help it spread through your mouth quickly, like a type of detergent that makes it foam and something to make your teeth shiny.

Did You Know?

    • The flavors of toothpaste are usually from plants like Spearmint and Peppermint. Most toothpaste is sweetened with artificial sweeteners.
    • Before toothpaste was invented, people used all kinds of dry, rough things as an abrasive to clean their teeth – like crushed eggshells, pumice, and the burnt hooves of animals!!!
    • Before toothbrushes were invented, people used twigs or fingers to brush their teeth.
    • A couple of hundred years ago, when people didn’t know about brushing their teeth, most people had rotten black teeth, mainly if they ate lots of sugar like Queen Elizabeth the first.

Choosing the right toothpaste

Going down the toothpaste aisle and choosing a suitable toothpaste can be difficult in today’s marketplace. Most experts would agree that as long as your toothpaste contains fluoride, the brand you buy doesn’t matter. All toothpaste with fluoride works effectively to fight plaque and cavities. Of course, they also clean and polish tooth enamel. In addition, your toothpaste should bear the ADA (American Dental Association) seal of approval on the container, which means that adequate evidence of safety and efficacy has been demonstrated in clinical trials.

If you have sensitive teeth, a desensitizing toothpaste should be used because the critical ingredient, strontium chloride or potassium nitrate, protects the tubules in the teeth connected to the nerves. (i.e., Tom’s of Maine toothpaste for sensitive teeth)

In tartar-control toothpaste, the key ingredient is sodium pyrophosphate. This type of toothpaste will not remove tartar. It will only keep it from forming above the gum line. Prolonged use of this type of toothpaste may cause sensitivity in some people. (i.e., Listerine Essential Care Paste for Tartar Control)

In an antimicrobial toothpaste such as Colgate Total, the critical ingredient is triclosan, an antibacterial agent. This type of toothpaste is supposed to remove bacteria that can cause gum disease but will not remove existing tartar.

In baking soda toothpaste, the critical ingredient is baking soda. Baking soda is a mild abrasive and may cause gum irritation after prolonged use. The only benefit to this type of toothpaste is that it leaves you with a fresh feeling in your mouth which can be an incentive to brush longer. (i.e., Arm & Hammer Baking Soda pastes)

Whitening toothpaste contains abrasive ingredients that lighten teeth. These ingredients may cause gum irritation and sensitivity to teeth. They are also not as effective as the bleaching kits in your dentist’s office.

When brushing, always use a soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid brushing away gum tissue. A pea-sized amount of toothpaste is sufficient, contrary to what is shown in commercials and ads. Brush at least twice a day for a minimum of two minutes. Naturally, brushing does not take the place of flossing once a day, and Floss gets between your teeth, where cavities may form.

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