How Did People Clean Their Teeth Before Toothpaste?

Toothpaste: A Taste of the Good Life

There are so many fantastic things to appreciate about living with modern conveniences. Wireless internet. Smartphones. Keyless cars. And toothpaste. 

If you’re wondering why toothpaste is on the same list as wireless internet, then you haven’t thought about what life was like before our modern version of toothpaste! We take that small tube for granted, and we don’t give it credit for all the benefits it provides to us. Yes, toothpaste gives us pleasant breath and shiny teeth, but it also does so much more. 

Let’s look at how oral care was conducted in the past, and you can judge for yourself if toothpaste belongs on that list. 

Ancient Dental Care

The world’s oldest known recipe for “toothpaste” comes from the land of pyramids and pharaohs, Egypt. Ancient papyrus dating from the 4th century AD contained a formula used to clean teeth. The recipe for this powder was:

  • one drachma (one-hundredth of an ounce) of rock salt
  • one drachma of mint
  • one drachma of the dried iris flower
  • 20 grains of pepper

Interestingly enough, researchers decided to try out the recipe in the name of science. One of the scientists, an Austrian dentist, noted that the concoction was painful in his mouth, and afterward, his gums bled, but that the paste was “not unpleasant.” He did concede that, perhaps after the bleeding ended, his mouth felt fresh and clean!  

Not to be outdone by the Egyptians, the Roman version of toothpaste also included a few odd ingredients. Their recipe for toothpaste called for crushed bones, ground oyster shells, and charcoal powder. If you think the charcoal powder is a strange addition, think again. Charcoal is now an ingredient in shampoo, face wash, and —yes—toothpaste. 

The Greeks had a one and done method of brushing their teeth. The Greeks chewed a plant containing mastiche, which is tree sap that had the consistency of chewing gum. When they had their fill of cleaning their teeth, they would simply spit out the sap. 

In the East, China also had their own idea for a toothpaste that may have been a bit more palatable than the others. Their paste consisted of Ginseng, mint, and salt. This concoction probably tasted much better than the Egyptian and Roman version. 

Medieval Times

Unfortunately, good hygiene didn’t carry over into medieval times. Only certain “posh” sections of society participated in dental care during this period. The ingredients for their toothpaste seemed more like a witch’s brew than a dental cleanser. 

Their toothpaste ingredients called for the following: 

  • cinnamon
  • clove
  • spikenard
  • frankincense
  • grain
  • wormwood
  • crab foot
  • date pits
  • olives

This mix was rubbed across the teeth using a (hopefully clean) rag. To add a little zing to their toothpaste, red wine or other types of alcohol were splashed into the brew. Alas, there are no reports of scientists having tried that formula! 


In the 1700s, dental health wasn’t a priority. Not a lot of effort was placed into improving toothpaste. Many people used burnt bits of bread to clean their teeth. The debris that is now on the bottom of our toasters is what the people in the 1700s used to maintain their oral health.

The 1800s saw a tremendous improvement over blackened bread crumbs. People began to see dental health as necessary. Chalk, charcoal, and ground dried fruit or nuts were mixed with—soap! People thought that soap would be an excellent way to remove gunk from between the teeth. This practice is the source of the saying, ”I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!” 

The 1900s- Today

Dental health became a science in the 1900s, and fluoride found its way into regular use. Toothpaste was formally invented to prevent and treat cavities and gum disease. Soap was removed from the formula, and sodium lauryl sulfate was added to give a more bubbly texture. Sodium lauryl sulfate and fluoride are still used in many tubes of toothpaste today. 

Look at the ingredients on the toothpaste you have in your bathroom. Any date pits? How about burnt bread? Ground bones? Chances are, the ingredients in your toothpaste are derivatives of those ancient ingredients, made palatable, and packaged into a convenient tube. One big convenience is that we no longer have to make our own toothpaste like the ancient Greeks and Romans. 

The Importance of Dental Health

Although learning about the dental habits of ancient cultures is amusing, there are important factors to note. Current research indicates that dental health plays a more significant role in overall health and longevity than previously thought. The American Heart Association links cardiovascular health to oral health. Gum inflammation may cause inflammation elsewhere in the body because our mouths are the main point of entry into our bodies. 

Modern humans enjoy a longer lifespan than ancient cultures. Though longevity can be contributed to a higher and safer quality of life, better medical care, and greater access to resources—one contributing factor may also be the availability of quality dental care. The ability to see a dentist for oral health and access to high-quality toothpaste, toothbrushes, and dental floss (don’t forget the dental floss!) is something not to take for granted. So, let’s keep toothpaste on that list of modern conveniences, and don’t forget to brush your teeth. 

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