We all love the early morning brushing routine right? Standing in front of the mirror, smearing some paste and brushing your teeth for a few minutes for a fresh breath and pearly white teeth. But have you ever paused to think about the origin of the toothpaste? Where did it from? What did our ancestors use? Did they have a good breath and what did their teeth look like?
Well for answers to these questions, we have to go further back into the geniuses of antiquity. That would be the Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.
Ancient Egypt was once of the most advanced civilizations in antiquity and that splendor did not end in its megalomaniacal buildings. They invented lots of little luxuries ranging from perfumes to breath mints, eye makeup, oils and ointments. With such an eye for hygiene and the aesthetically, it is therefore no surprise that the Ancient Egyptians were also the first to invent some rudimentary toothpaste. As far back as 5000BC, there is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians were using a paste to clean their teeth. It was said to be made of a mixture of pumice, egg shells, myrrh, oxen hooves and ashes and it was powdery. The taste might have been something else but it gave the Egyptians a winning smile.
Next to be bothered by rotten teeth were the Ancient Greeks. Another great civilisation of the antiquity, they made toothpaste that consisted of powdery mixture of oyster shells and crushed bones for powerful cleaning action. In these early days, the focus was more on obtaining pearly white teeth than a fresh breath so you can see these early toothpastes having some really excessive abrasive component. The taste must also have been terrible.
Next on the line were the Hindu and Chinese civilizations. Their earliest recorded toothpaste usage was around 500BC. The Chinese had a knack for tapping into natural herbs and elements for medicinal uses so the early Chinese toothpaste was formulated from…you guessed it right, ginseng, salt and some herbal mints. We can also see the Chinese beginning to get it right by incorporating some mint action into the formulation. The Chinese toothpaste must therefore have tasted better than the earlier formulations. As terrible as they tasted and as scary as they seem today, these earlier “toothpastes” or more precisely, tooth powders, were considered a luxury item and only the rich could afford them.
This “crudeness” in toothpaste formulation continued until around 1800s when we begin seeing a semblance of the modern toothpaste formulas taking shape. Around this time, people began thinking about more than just the abrasive action. In the early 1800s, soap was added to the formulation and around the 1850s, the alchemists also started packaging their paste in jars.
The first foray into the modern toothpaste-making occurred around 1873 with the founding of Colgate which started mass production of toothpastes for the general population. However, Colgate also struggled to get the formula right. Its earliest products mainly consisted of abrasive elements until the early 20th century. While these had excellent scrubbing action, they also scrapped away bits of the enamel so those obsessed with oral hygiene in these times must have suffered from some tooth sensitivity issues.
In terms of packaging, Colgate soon used toothpaste tubes by the 1890s which replaced the tin jars which was used previously. In 1914, the manufacturers finally got it right by incorporating one of the most important toothpaste ingredients in their formula: fluoride. This was a revolutionary invention because fluoride helps in preventing tooth decay while strengthening the enamel. Since then, fluoride has been added as one of the key ingredients in toothpastes.
There was also another small revolution in the toothpaste packaging. Most of us today are used to plastic toothpaste tubes but your great grandfather must have used toothpaste contained in a metallic tube. That must have required some hard pressing to get the paste out. The lead or tin alloy tubes were only phased out due to the shortage of the metals during World War 2 and also due to health concerns as the lead would sometimes leak into the paste.
Also, until 1945, all toothpastes contained soap! This was also phased out and replaced with other ingredients such as sodium lauryl phosphate that allowed the toothpaste to be formulated into a smooth emulsion or paste. As the formula was refined, the earlier abrasive element in the toothpaste was eventually eliminated. Today’s toothpastes are a smooth emulsion that allows you to brush your teeth vigorously without worrying about peeling off your enamels. In spite of all the advances over the past millennia in toothpaste formulation, the product is still getting refined. Today’s manufacturers are adding extras such as tooth whitening and other special ingredients that contribute to your tooth and gum health.