History and Creative Uses of Toothpaste

Published April 19th, 2016   

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From the moment some ancient Egyptians crumbled together pepper, dried flowers, and rock salt and tried to clean their teeth with it, toothpaste has been a part of our oral hygiene history. Alas, those early versions of toothpaste weren’t very effective. Often they hurt more than they helped, causing bleeding gums or, depending on how tough the salt was, broken teeth.

Today our commercially produced toothpastes have evolved to help not just our teeth but even other parts of our body, our households and our bottom lines. Did you know, for instance, that toothpaste is a great low-priced substitute for abrasive cleansers that can tidy up your bathroom sink and get your chrome fixtures shining? Or that you can deodorize your hands after chopping stinky foods such as onions with a quick squirt of toothpaste?

At our Peoria, AZ-area dental practice, we love hearing the creative new ways our patients have tried using toothpaste, from pimple remover to clothes iron cleaner. That inspired us to go deeper into the history of toothpaste to figure out where it came from and the many alternative ways to use toothpaste that have emerged since then. Here’s what we discovered.

The Ancient History of Toothpaste

Toothpaste dates, by most estimates, back to the days of the early Egyptians, around 5000 BC. They wanted to clean their teeth, and so they picked out a mix of abrasive substances, such as the salt, and sweet-smelling ones, such as the flowers, to both clean and freshen. Unfortunately, this primitive toothpaste served little assistance. Back then, no one used toothbrushes, and pushing the “paste” onto the teeth with the finger often irritated the delicate gums.

toothpaste ingredients

Later the Egyptians developed toothbrushes made out of twigs, whose ends were frayed to allow for easier application of the toothpaste. But this didn’t work much better to keep mouths clean. Over the ensuing years, ancient civilizations tried lots of other different ways to clean their teeth. A few of the more surprising toothpaste ingredients included:

  • Burnt bread
  • Eggshells
  • Crushed Bones
  • Ashes of ox hooves
  • Charcoal
  • Oyster shells

None of that sounds particularly appetizing, and as the years went on, people realized they could add other ingredients to the pastes to make them more palatable. The Chinese in particular got an early start on mixing in good-smelling, good-tasting mint and ginseng.

Toothpaste Becomes Mainstream

It took a long time for toothpastes as we now know them to enter the mainstream. In the early 1800s, they began to pop up across Europe and the United States, but they were still fairly unrecognizable from their modern forms. In fact, early on some toothpaste makers just used soap as the main ingredient in toothpaste. Chalk also made its way into the formula.

But perhaps the strangest ingredient came in the 1860s in England, when one formula for toothpaste included Betel nut, a fruit of the areca tree. This was odd, because Betel nut is a stimulant, sort of like caffeine, and its use is banned for pregnant women because of potential side effects on their fetuses. Back then people didn’t realize that, of course, and they believed that Betel nut could kill bad breath.

Toothpaste became commercialized in the United States in 1873, when Colgate began selling a jar of toothpaste. It took almost two decades for toothpaste to migrate to its current form, in squeezable tubes. The first was sold by Dr. Washington Sheffield. Colgate quickly put a version of the tube on the market.

The Evolution of Modern-Day Toothpaste

modern day toothpaste facts

Toothpastes with added fluoride, which we continue to use today, debuted in 1914. Fluoride has a complicated and controversial history itself. Sixty years later, natural toothpastes would become popular without any additives such as fluoride. These natural toothpastes rely on herbal extracts, not unlike the ones used by the ancient Egyptians 7,000 years ago. Whether they actually work as an effective cavity deterrent is certainly up for debate.

Once the basic formula for commercial toothpaste had been established, manufacturers began to experiment. The past few decades have brought a number of specialized toothpastes, such as:

  • Toothpaste for sensitive teeth, designed to be less abrasive
  • Toothpaste for whitening teeth, designed to lighten their color
  • Toothpaste for people who smoke, designed to clean stains off teeth

The modern-day toothpaste contains fluoride, as well as flavoring and coloring. Some even have sweeteners, odd as that sounds considering the purpose of toothpaste is to fight cavities caused in part by excess sugar consumption. There are even toothpastes for kids on the market that can be swallowed without consequence, something that’s eased the minds of worried parents watching their kids ingest gobs of toothpaste at their nightly brush session.

Notable Moments in Toothpaste History

When something’s been around as long as toothpaste, it’s bound to have some colorful moments. Here are five notable developments in toothpaste manufacturing that helped get us to the many types available today.

dangers of toothpaste

  1. Celebrity Toothpaste Designer: Ziryab was a 9th century Iraqi musician and poet who became a trendsetter in the Islamic world. He’s said to have started the idea of choosing clothes according to the weather. And he’s credited with inventing both deodorant and one of the earliest forms of toothpaste. Alas, the formula for the toothpaste did not survive.
  1. Soapy Taste: Believe it or not, up until the end of World War II, manufacturers used soap in the toothpaste they sold. Then manufacturers began replacing the soap with sodium lauryl sulphate, which emulsified the paste much more effectively.
  1. Tooth Powder Outsells Toothpaste: Tooth powder, which was marketed throughout the 19th century, was more popular than toothpaste until after the turn of the century. Tooth powder is actually still produced in India.
  1. Yikes, Don’t Use That Tube: In 2007, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that several toothpastes made in China contained diethylene glycol, a poisonous liquid that has resulted in several epidemics when accidentally added to consumer products. No one was permanently harmed by the toothpaste in the recall, though a handful of U.S. residents reported headaches.
  1. Inspiring NASA: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has admitted to drawing inspiration for its astronaut food from toothpaste tubes. In the early days of space travel, NASA needed an easy way for astronauts to eat in space. It realized the format used for toothpaste was the perfect solution.

Beyond the Mouth: Alternative Ways to Use Toothpaste

When the ancient Egyptians mixed salt and flowers to form a paste for teeth cleaning, they probably never imagined that they had not only invented the basis for a multi-million-dollar toothpaste industry but also launched one of the most effective household cure-alls of all time. Indeed, toothpaste can be used in every room in the house to clean up, brighten and de-gunk your home. Plus, it can also help with other areas of your body.

How to clean with toothpaste

Read on to find out the most creative, and sometimes downright wacky, uses for toothpaste beyond brushing your teeth.

Household Uses for Toothpaste

Toothpaste is effective for helping with everyday cleaning tasks around the kitchen and bathroom, but it can also help with furniture and spot cleaning as well.

Living Room

Here are some great ways to use toothpaste to clean in the living room:

  • Touching up furniture: Toothpaste can remove the watermarks left by damp glasses on your coffee table or the sides of chairs. Be sure to use a non-gel toothpaste. Gently rub it on the offending area with a soft cloth. Then take it off with a damp cloth and use a dry cloth to thoroughly dry the area. Polish it, and you’ll never know someone forgot their coaster.
  • Getting crayon off the wall: Your budding artist just made a mural on the wall — without your permission. No worries. Instead of punishing your would-be Picasso, grab a tube of non-gel toothpaste and squeeze it onto the offending areas. Use a scrub brush to wash off the crayon. When you’ve got all the crayon gone, get a damp towel and wipe down the wall.
  • Cleaning your piano. Piano keys can get dark or dingy without cleaning. Put toothpaste on a toothbrush and run down all the keys. Then use a damp cloth to wipe away any remaining residue. Your ivory keys will look good as new.
  • Getting stains off the carpet. Dab a bit of colorless toothpaste onto a stain. Let it sit for a few minutes, then use a toothbrush to scrub it out. Be careful, though — you may want to test this on an area of carpet that people can’t see just in case it discolors the carpet.

Bathroom

Here are some great ways to use toothpaste to clean in the bathroom:

  • Shining chrome fixtures: It’s difficult to keep chrome fixtures gleaming, but they make the difference between drab and fab in the bathroom. The abrasives in toothpaste can clean your chrome fixtures in a pinch, when you don’t have any commercial spray available. Apply non-gel paste on a cloth, and polish until they look like new.
  • Cleaning the bathroom sink: Use toothpaste to clean a streaked and dirty bathroom sink. Squeeze the toothpaste onto a sponge and work it around the sink until all the grime is gone. The best part is, your sink will smell sweet and minty.
  • Getting shower doors sparkling: We all hate the layer of dirty film that accumulates on the shower door. Wipe it away using a sponge with a healthy squirt of toothpaste on it.
  • Defogging the mirror: Doesn’t it drive you nuts when you’re in a hurry, you jump out of the shower, and you can’t see in the mirror to shave or apply makeup? Combat shower fog by applying toothpaste evenly over the mirror before showering, wiping it dry before you hop in. When you get out, there won’t be any fog on the mirror. This is also a great trick for keeping swim goggles defogged.

Kitchen and Mud Room

Here are some great ways to use toothpaste to clean in the kitchen and mud room:

  • Erasing scuff marks: Linoleum takes a beating with your house occupants walking all over it every day. Repair ugly scuffs by rubbing them with a dry cloth with a dab of toothpaste until they disappear.
  • Cleaning refrigerator seals: Squeeze toothpaste on seals and use a toothbrush to scrub them clean.
  • Deodorizing hands: After you chop garlic or cut up an onion, your hands will carry a stench that no mere soap can remove. Put some toothpaste on your hands and rub them vigorously, then wash off. Make sure to put on lotion shortly after to lock in moisture.

Bedroom

Here are some great ways to use toothpaste to clean in the bedroom:

  • Cleaning your iron: If you’ve never cleaned your iron before, now’s the time to start. But don’t strike while the iron is hot. Allow it to cool completely before applying a thin layer to the bottom of the iron, scrubbing, and rinsing.
  • Polishing diamonds: Your diamonds will sparkle anew after you put a bit of toothpaste on them and rub gently with your toothbrush. Be sure to rinse off the residue left behind by the toothpaste.
  • Treating an ink-stained shirt: It’s not uncommon for pens to leak or explode in your pocket without you realizing it. Treat the stain with non-gel toothpaste. Rub the clothing together in the area of the stain, then rinse with water. Check to see if the stain is gone. If so, you’re done. If not, try again and again.

Other Uses for Toothpaste on Your Body

Your house isn’t the only place where you can use toothpaste outside your mouth. There are also numerous uses for toothpaste on your body. However, we will steer you away from one popular suggestion you’ll see online for alternative ways to use toothpaste — as a hair gel. Not only does it make your hair stiff and difficult to brush, but it’s also difficult to get out when you shampoo.

So skip the “toothpaste-as-hair gel” ideas and stick to these:

  • Fighting pimples: The ingredients in toothpaste can act as a drying agent, which helps slow the growth of a pimple. Make sure you use non-gel and non-whitening toothpaste, though. And don’t use this method if you have sensitive skin. It will only irritate your face.
  • De-stinging bug bites: When you’re stung by a mosquito, it really itches. But putting a glob of toothpaste on the affected area can take away the itch. Note: Don’t use this for bee stings, as those can be more serious.
  • Treating burns: If you burn your hand, you can put a thick layer of toothpaste on it to relieve the pain after first running the affected area under cold water.
  • Buffing your nails: When you want your nails to really shine, apply a small amount just above the cuticle and rub with a clean, dry cloth.

What Have You Used Toothpaste For?

Toothpaste can be used for so many different things besides caring for teeth. Is there a surprising use for toothpaste that you’ve come across? Tell us what it is in the comments below. Or make an appointment to get your teeth cleaned at our Glendale, AZ-area office and explain it to us in person.