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The strange and minty history of toothpaste

The Ancient Romans had it pretty right all along.

A piece of dusty papyrus discovered recently in the basement of a Viennese museum reveals what is believed to be the world’s oldest recipe for toothpaste.

According to the document, written around the fourth century AD, all you need to get your pearly whites sparkling is one drachma (an ancient measurement – around 3.4 g) of rock salt, two drachmas of mint, one drachma of dried iris flower and 20 grains of pepper. Crush, mix together with saliva to form a paste and rub onto teeth.

The paste, according to present day dentists who have tried it, is pretty effective at cleaning teeth (although they also reported bleeding gums). Not only does it work, but it’s a lot more pleasant than many later versions of toothpaste, including creams made of ground charcoal, egg shells, crushed bones and oyster shells.

It seems the Romans had it figured out pretty early on. In fact, not all that much has changed in the centuries since – the toothpaste we use today has only marginally improved on their original recipe.

“The paste, according to present day dentists who have tried it, is pretty effective at cleaning teeth (although they also reported bleeding gums).”

While the Roman folk added mint to flavour their paste (and perhaps to help with bad breath), fast forward a few centuries to 1820 and a dentist named Dr Peabody is adding soap to toothpaste, presumably to up the ‘cleanliness’ factor. Unsurprisingly, no-one liked the taste of soap and it was later replaced by sodium lauryn sulfate to create a smooth paste.

In 1873, Colgate launched the first commercially produced, fresh-smelling toothpaste, sold in a jar. Not too long later in 1892, the idea of putting toothpaste in a tube was sparked by dentist Dr Washington Sheffield, who introduced a product in a collapsible tin tube. During World War II, a tin shortage lead to the development of the plastic tubes we know and love today – and we’ve never looked back.

Fluoride toothpastes to help prevent decay were introduced in 1914, and the second half of the twentieth century saw toothpastes created to help prevent or treat specific diseases and conditions, such as tooth sensitivity. The most recent advances in toothpastes have included whitening toothpastes, and toothpaste containing Triclosan, which provides extra protection against tartar, gum disease, plaque and bad breath.

And guess what? Dentists have recently re-discovered the beneficial properties of the iris, which has been found effective against gum disease and is now in commercial use again. Those Romans really were onto something.

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