Have you ever wondered what people used to brush their teeth before the invention of the minty fresh paste we know and love today? It turns out, humans have used many different concoctions over the years, ranging from harsh but effective to downright gross.

It’s safe to say we’re spoiled with the modern blend of fluoride, gentle abrasives, humectants, flavorings and detergents found in popular brands. However, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that our version of toothpaste has been in existence.

Still curious about what ancient civilizations and humans in the not-so-distant past used to clean their teeth? Keep reading to learn how this dental hygiene staple evolved through the ages.

Beginning with the Egyptians
The first civilization historians have documented using a toothpaste-like mixture to brush their teeth is the Egyptians. It is believed to have been used as early as 5,000 BC, though the first recorded formula dates back to 4 AD. Their simple mixture contained:
  • Crushed rock salt
  • Mint
  • Iris flowers
  • Pepper
As you may imagine, this formula caused lots of irritation and gum bleeding. Though in terms of effectiveness, it cleaned teeth remarkably well. Some would even say it was the most effective oral cleansing treatment used until nearly a century ago.

Toothpaste’s Transformation
Crushed rock salt and mint weren’t the only mixtures humans tried before getting it right.

Some favored formulas featured crushed bone and oyster shells in Greek and Roman societies, and ginseng, herbal mints and salt in Chinese cultures. Other ingredients ancient humans used included ox hooves, pumice, brick dust, burnt eggshells, ashes, chalk and pulverized charcoal. Sound appetizing? We didn’t think so.

In more recent centuries, toothpaste continued to evolve:

  • 1780: Evidence shows people used burnt breadcrumbs to brush.
  • 1824: A dentist named Dr. Peabody adds soap to abrasive ingredients for more cleaning power. Later on, soap was replaced by a detergent called sodium lauryl sulfate for a better blended consistency. You may recognize it from toothpastes you use today. This was the turning point from what were typically actual tooth powders to a more paste-like texture.
  • 1850’s: Chalk is used in oral hygiene routines for the next few decades.
  • 1873: The first smooth, good smelling paste is created by Colgate and sold in tiny glass jars.
  • 1892: Dr. Washington Sheffield introduces the first collapsible toothpaste tube.
  • 1914: Fluoride is added to toothpastes after studies show its many benefits to teeth.
  • 1987: Edible toothpaste is invented by NASA for astronauts to brush in space without spitting. It continues to be used today by children while they are still learning how to brush.
  • 1989: The first toothpaste marketed as “whitening” is sold by Rembrandt.

Toothpaste has clearly come a long way from crushed bone and shell mixtures in recent years, though its purpose has always stayed the same: to clean teeth and freshen breath.