Toothpaste has been a controversial product from the beginning. Prior to the 1850s, toothpaste was sold as a powder. Tooth powder dates back to Egypt as early as 5000 BC. The ancient Romans added harsh abrasives such as crushed bones, sand and oyster shells to their tooth cleaners.

Colgate advertising from the 1970s

Colgate advertising featuring a young Brooke Shields, 1975.

The Chinese, circa 500 BC, chose more palatable ingredients such as sea salt, ginseng, and mint. Many of these ingredients are still used in toothpaste today. Until 1945, toothpastes contained soap and abrasives to clean teeth; after 1945, they replaced soap with controversial and potentially toxic ingredients like triclosan, sodium laureth sulfate, artificial sweeteners and colors.

Calox tooth powder advertising.

An advertisement for Calox Tooth Powder.

Tooth powders made the transition into the soft paste we’re so accustomed to in 1850 when a 23-year old dental surgeon and chemist named Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield began to market his home brew paste under the enticing name “Creme Dentifrice.”

Dr. Sheffield's Creme Dentifrice advertising, 1886.

Toothpaste à la Française: Dr. Sheffield’s Crème Dentifrice, 1886.

Originally packed in jars, Dr. Sheffield’s son Lucius had a light bulb moment in 1892 while studying in Paris. He saw artists painting with tubes of paint. There the idea of a creamy toothpaste gel in a collapsible tube was born. Soon after, the big boys at Colgate followed suit and began to manufacture toothpaste in a tube in 1896, heralding a product that shows no sign of extinction anytime soon.

While still vulnerable to marketing whims and consumer fads, few have successfully ventured to tinker with this now classic form. Does anyone past the age of 12 really use the Colgate pump?

There is, however, a highly controversial issue residing in these seemingly benign tubes. The industrial waste product Fluoride was introduced into toothpastes in 1914, as a way to reduce tooth decay. Within five minutes of eating sugar or carbohydrate foods like potato chips, the acids in your saliva begin to start working away at the enamel on your teeth, beginning the process of demineralization that leads to tooth decay. Fluoride acts to slow this process.

Sher-Pira Tooth Powder, 1917.

Sher-Pira Tooth Powder from Shapria’s Pharmacy in San Anselmo, California, 1917.

There is growing research into both the toxic effects of Fluoride as well as its sinister role in the Cold War, including its association with the Manhattan Project and the development of the Atom bomb. Safety concerns have been growing on the possible adverse effects of so much Fluoride intake on the human body’s other functions and there is a wealth of information available online detailing this controversial practice.

America is the only country that performs widespread fluoridation of it’s water supply. 97% of Western Europe no longer fluoridates their water. Interestingly, the supposed need for fluoridating the water supply is actually a result of our mineral-poor diet of fast food and high intake of processed sugar. A diet low in processed sugar and high in mineral-rich foods such as fresh greens will make the need for Fluoride irrelevant. And more natural substance such as green tea has a similar effect as Fluoride in reducing the process of tooth decay.

A detail of Myrrh.

Myrrh, one of the ingredients used in natural toothpastes.

Despite the ubiquity of Colgate, Crest, and other multinational brands, there is a considerable toothpaste underground easily discovered in any natural food store. These natural products ditch the Fluoride so widely touted in mainstream toothpastes, instead favoring non-toxic herbal healing ingredients such as echinacea, tea tree, myrrh, clove, peppermint oil, sea salt, and food-grade hydrogen peroxide. Many also reject the convenience of the modern paste altogether, uneasy with the binders and other non-essential ingredients required to transform powder to a thick gooey gel.

Like many modern products, toothpaste doesn’t have to be so complicated. You can even make your own homemade tooth powders and epicurean toothpaste recipes by adding food-grade baking soda and your choice of natural herbal oils or tinctures to sea salt, a natural antibacterial cleanser.

If that’s a little too survivalist for your tastes, there are many exciting natural toothpastes at your health food store. Mint is always first rate for freshening breath, but there are also interesting and exotic choices like anise, fennel, cinnamon or ginger. There’s a whole world beyond supermarket toothpaste to explore.

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5 Comments

  1. jayjaycoolnoquestion
    Posted February 20, 2010 at 9:17 AM | Permalink

    Oops, I also wanted to say the article is more fascinating than I thought it would be and well-written. In East Africa, they use a soft stick from the saltbush tree, which is also known as the "toothbrush tree". So far the site has been a little Euro-centric.

  2. Brandon
    Posted February 20, 2010 at 12:15 PM | Permalink

    Beautiful Brooke.

  3. Nins
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 4:54 AM | Permalink

    as always, I love the images! thanks

  4. KL
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 4:04 AM | Permalink

    Brushing your teeth with "crushed bones, sand and oyster shells". That sounds like fun.

  5. Posted May 30, 2015 at 9:34 PM | Permalink

    Hey there! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from
    an established blog. Is it tough to set up your own blog?
    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.
    I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you
    have any points or suggestions? Cheers

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