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 toothpastes). Below are some interesting, point form facts and recipes that may help satisfy your curiosity – or spur it on!!

Back in the Days of Buddha

The activity of keeping the mouth clean dates all the way 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 personal hygiene regimen.

In 23 – 79 AD the practice of oral hygiene included:

  • Drinking goats milk for sweet breath
  • Ashes from burnt mice heads, rabbits heads, wolves 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 to be 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 as well.
  • Mouthwashes were known to consist of pure white wine, or (get ready for this one) old urine kept especially for this purpose.

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 common North American breakfast)

Other toothpastes 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 every second day.

The 19th Century

  • In the 19th century, charcoal became very popular for teeth cleaning purposes.
  • Most toothpastes at this time were in the form of a powder.
  • The purpose of the tooth powder was not only to clean the teeth, but to give fresh breath. (Hmmm….that idea isn’t so outdated!!)
  • The succulent strawberry (still available today) was considered to be 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)
    2 spoonfuls of your best honey (This does not refer to your significant other!!)
    A pinch of green sageMix together and use every night on wet teeth.
  • Another toothpaste included:
    2 oz. cuttlefish bone
    1 oz. cream of tartar
    2 drachms drop lake
    15 drops clover oilPowder, mix, sift.

The 20th Century

  • 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 toothpastes have gained popularity for people looking for a “natural” toothpaste or for those who don’t want fluoride in their dental cleansers. Some herbal toothpastes contain:
    peppermint oil
    plant extract (strawberry extract)
    special oils and cleansing agents

Hey, didn’t we see these ingredients in the toothpastes 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 toothpastes that whiten 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 tooth paste”.

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 together.

The result is a pungent paste which 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 and it makes up about a 5th of a tube of toothpaste
  • The other main part of toothpaste is the paste which is made up of water and things to help it spread through your mouth easily like a type of detergent which 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 toothpastes are sweetened with artificial sweetener.
    • Before toothpaste was invented people used all kinds of dry, rough things as an abrasive to clean their teeth – things like crushed eggshell, pumice the burnt hooves of animals!!!
    • Before toothbrushes were invented people used twigs or their fingers to brush their teeth.
    • A couple of hundred years ago when people didn’t know about brushing their teeth most people had black rotten teeth especially 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 a difficult task in today’s marketplace. Most experts would agree that as long as your toothpaste contains fluoride, the brand you buy really doesn’t matter. All toothpastes with fluoride work 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 have been demonstrated in clinical trials.

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

In tartar-control toothpaste, the key ingredient is sodium pyrophosphate. This type of toothpaste will not remove tarter. 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 key ingredient is triclosan, an antibacterial agent. This type of toothpaste is supposed to remove bacteria that can cause gum disease but it will not remove existing tartar.

In baking soda toothpastes, the key 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 toothpastes contain 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 found in your dentist’s office

When brushing, always use a soft-bristled toothbrush so as not to brush away gum tissue. A pea-sized amount of toothpaste is sufficient, contrary to what is shown on commercials and in 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. Floss gets between your teeth where cavities may form.