The Colourful History of Teeth Whitening

The range of beauty treatments available to us today has never been greater, with many people undergoing painful, dangerous, or bizarre procedures in the name of vanity. The history of teeth whitening, likewise, contains an enthralling mix of weird and wonderful processes which makes for interesting reading. 

The history of teeth whitening unpacked

From the absurd to the downright disgusting, teeth whitening procedures have been around for thousands of years. It seems that a beautiful white smile has always been an unspoken indication of health, and in many cases, wealth. 

Of course, ancient humans didn’t enjoy the same hygiene products that we have today and made use of “chew sticks” to keep their teeth clean. Interestingly, many modern-day cultures still make use of chew sticks, preferring them to conventional toothbrushes. 

Christine D. Wu, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the University of Illinois College of Dentistry, told Reuters, “There are several documented studies which suggest that the cleaning sticks are at least as effective as normal toothbrushes and paste in maintaining routine oral health.”

“She said some laboratory studies indicated plants from which some of the sticks in Africa are cut contain protective anti-microbial compounds that act against the bacteria in the mouth which cause tooth decay and gum disease.

“And if these sticks do contain fluoride, as plants do, then this would be beneficial for caries prevention,” Wu said, although she stressed much more research needed to be done on the sticks and their use by humans.”

So, we were on the right track back then to keep our teeth clean and healthy, but there is more to the story.

Ancient teeth whitening remedies

Ancient Egyptians, forward-thinking as they were, are attributed to one of the first teeth whitening mixes. Evidence shows that they made a paste out of ground pumice (volcanic stone) mixed with wine vinegar which was used along with a frayed stick or twig to rub into the teeth. The ground pumice is a natural abrasive and, coupled with high acidity levels in vinegar, this compound worked to lift stains effectively.

Around 1 A.D, the Romans had a slightly different take on things. They opted to use both animal and human urine as a mouthwash as it contains ammonia which is a known bleaching and cleaning agent. In fact, they went so far as to import Portuguese urine which, due to its popularity, became a taxable product. Who’d have thought?

Around the 14th Century, sensible dental procedures were still rare with many people entrusting their oral health to their local barber. In order to get that bright, white smile that everyone desired, barbers would file the teeth and then apply an acidic mix to lift stains. This method worked beautifully to whiten teeth but was incredibly damaging to the protective enamel layer of the tooth resulting in early decay. 

Other teeth whitening remedies consisted of a mixture of honey, burnt salt and vinegar, tortoise blood, or a bitter-tasting weed called purple nutsedge.

Oral health and diet

What has been interesting to note, is that most ancient cultures actually enjoyed exceptionally good oral health. In one 2,000-year-old burial site, less than one percent of the teeth in the bodies uncovered had tooth decay or cavities.

Surely that frayed little stick wasn’t better than the dental technology that we have today?

The answer to this can be found in our diet.

On the topic of ancient dental toothbrushes, National Geographic says, “Early humans generally had relatively few cavities, thanks in part to meals that were heavy on the meat, light on the carbs.

“Then humans invented farming and began eating more grain. Bacteria in the human mouth flourished, pouring out acids that eat away at the teeth. The first farmers tended to have much more tooth decay than hunter-gatherers did.”

So, a diet high in refined carbohydrates (such as crisps, bread, or pasta) will break down into simple sugars in the mouth and provide a flourishing feeding ground for bacteria which eats away at our tooth enamel. 

Avoiding the dentist?

Today, our modern diet is not only rich in refined carbohydrates, but also contains high levels of coffee, tea, red wine, and cola, alongside many medicines which can quickly discolour our teeth. 

If the history of teeth whitening is anything to go by, we can all benefit from a trip to our local dental clinic for a regular clean and a hygienic teeth whitening procedure. 

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