The Smithsonian has a deep collection that is too big to put on display in actual museums but, thanks to the Internet, many of these items are getting out to the public. This includes a fascinating collection of artifacts from the early 1600s, taken from graves and other deposits of an early settlement in the Americas. One piece in this collection is a skull showing evidence of what was considered good oral hygiene at the time.

This jawbone has teeth that are heavily damaged from brushing. The teeth in this skull are badly worn down in a distinctive way. It’s not worn down from teeth coming together to bite and chew. It’s also not worn down from clutching a pipe, as some others were. Instead, this set of teeth shows bad wear on the front surfaces, where a person might brush. Scanning electron microscopy confirmed the presence of numerous scratches on these surfaces, and researchers propose that the wear came from the use of tobacco ash as a tooth cleaner. Tobacco ash is  highly abrasive because it has concentrated silica, which is harder than tooth enamel.

In fact, for most of history, toothpaste was potentially more harmful than helpful, and even today you have to be careful of which toothpaste you choose.

Toothbrush and paste sitting on wet counter.

A Brief History of Toothpaste

The use of toothpaste has been reported back as far as 5000 BC. Although we don’t have the exact recipe for these earliest toothpastes, they likely included oxen hooves, bones, eggshells, and pumice. By 4 AD, we have an actual recipe for toothpaste, which included rock salt, mint, dried flowers, and pepper. It was reasonably effective, but highly abrasive, causing bleeding gums as well as likely causing some damage to teeth because of the abrasives. In China and India, people used a mixture of abrasives and nice-smelling herbs to make toothpastes effective at cleaning and also pleasant to use.

Popular abrasives were often chosen because they were cheap and plentiful (like brick dust), but the more common abrasives were white (like bones, shells, or broken porcelain). It was believed that using a white substance would impart whiteness on the teeth. (Though it’s not really effective, it’s more appealing than the Roman recipe, which added urine to toothpaste for whitening.)

Modern toothpastes begin to crop up in the 19th century, with the addition of soap and other foaming agents, and the beginning of modern packaging. The first collapsible toothpaste tube debuted in the 1890s.

Fluoride was added to toothpastes in the early 20th century, about the time that people began to get serious about oral hygiene with toothbrushing drills, some famously here in upstate New York.

Safer Toothpastes

The history of toothpaste has largely been an imprecise process of additions, without ever truly understanding the benefit or detriment of each element. Many of these ingredients have never been truly studied to see if the benefits outweigh the cost to your health. Alcohols, foaming agents, artificial flavors and colors–all these may not be worth it. And while modern toothpastes aren’t quite as abrasive as some ancient formulations, they can still be abrasive enough to damage irreplaceable tooth enamel.

In addition, mass-produced toothpastes don’t take into account that not everyone has the same oral health needs. They contain allergens that can cause harmful reactions in your body, leading to worse overall health. Even potentially helpful ingredients can be overdone, as fluoride exposure comes at us from so many directions, making it easy to get too much. Some people will benefit more from a fluoride-free toothpaste option.

Part of our approach to holistic dentistry means making a wider range of oral hygiene products available to our patients. We want to make sure that everyone has access to cleaners that are good for them. That can make daily brushing something helpful for your teeth and overall health.

Holistic Dentistry in Rochester

If you feel that your current dentist isn’t taking into account your full body health, maybe it’s time to schedule a checkup with a dentist who takes a more encompassing view of health. If you are looking for a holistic dentist in Rochester, NY, please call (585) 244-3337 today for an appointment at Contemporary Dentistry.