How, history of brushing our teeth, did we get to where we are today? You use your toothbrush twice a day but have probably never even thought of where it came from to begin with. What we do know is that humans have been brushing their teeth since at least 3000 BC, according to historians. Surely the toothbrushes back then were a bit more primitive than the ones we have today. But the goal was the same: to keep your teeth as fresh and clean as possible by manually removing plaque buildup and leftover food.
On a related note, toothpaste has evolved alongside the toothbrush throughout human history and plays another integral part in our oral health and wellbeing. Floss doesn’t make its way into history until about the 1800s, but that’s a story for another day.
According to historians, ancient civilizations began paying attention to their oral health somewhere around 3000 BC by using a tool called a chew stick. Their dental hygiene routine included chew sticks made from a small, thin twig with a frayed end. The frayed portion was used to rub and chew to remove residue from their teeth. This invention is credited to the Babylonians and is said to be the oldest oral hygiene tool ever discovered. The Babylonians do, however, have some competition when it comes to the world's first toothbrush, and that is with the Tang Dynasty in the 15th century.
While there is some debate about whether the chew stick of the Babylonians was the first official toothbrush, many will argue that it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty in ancient China that the toothbrush was actually invented. These dental hygiene tools had a handle and bristles, just like the style we see in today’s modern designs. Except, China’s toothbrushes were a bit different in how they were made.
The Chinese used what they had on hand to create this masterpiece of a toothbrush, including a bamboo handle and hairs for bristles. Yes, the hairs used for the bristle portion of the toothbrush were made from hog hair! Hogs in this part of China had extra stiff hairs, making them the perfect texture for brushing teeth. Small bones would also be used as the handle when bamboo was unavailable. Tiny holes were created in the bamboo or fish bones to insert the hog hair into them. Voila: you now have the first ancient toothbrush!
The first mass produced toothbrush or modern toothbrush that we know and love today was not officially invented until around 1938 by Dupont de Nemours, who officially started using nylon bristles. After 1938, popularity of the nylon bristle toothbrush replaced the natural animal bristles, marking a significant shift in the history of the toothbrush.
The first electric toothbrush was made in 1954 by a person named Dr. Philippe-Guy Woog in Switzerland. It came to the United States in the early 1960s. Before that, people had other electric toothbrushes, but this one, called the "Broxodent," is one of the earliest ones you could easily buy.
Related: 7 Best Electric Toothbrushes
Because ancient civilizations did not have the luxury of a local grocery store, Walmart, Target, or Amazon Prime, they had to get creative with their toothpaste options. Historians have documented numerous different toothpaste discoveries that are really quite creative.
Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians have all been known to use some form of paste with a toothbrush-like tool. Some toothpaste included ingredients such as burnt egg shells, ashes, grounded-up animal hooves, herbs, ginseng, shells, and even tree bark! We now know today that many of these ingredients are too hard for tooth enamel.
However, they were onto something with understanding the need for some sort of abrasive to clean their teeth. In fact, some herbs are still used in toothpaste today to help freshen breath.
Other ancient renditions of the toothbrush include the Miswak, a twig from the Salvador tree that has been used throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa due to its naturally occurring antimicrobial benefits.
Europeans started using their version of a toothbrush in the 17th century. These brushes used horsehairs instead of hog hair as bristles and were made with bone handles. Mass production of toothbrushes did not begin until the 19th century by an entrepreneur named William Addis.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what qualifies as toothpaste and who the sole inventor was, there is documentation to show that the inventor of modern toothpaste was a man named Washington Sheffield. Washington was an American dentist who officially sold toothpaste in tubes like we see today, beginning in 1880.
What did our ancestors do before these dental innovations and inventions? To our knowledge, our earliest ancestors did not brush their teeth. But they probably didn’t keep them as long, either. Knowing cavemen probably didn’t brush their teeth doesn’t take away the importance of you keeping up with your oral hygiene today. While animals in the wild do not brush their teeth, there are a few major reasons why proper oral hygiene is essential for people today.
One of the largest contributors to poor oral hygiene today is eating highly processed foods, including added sugar! Modern diets have excessively large amounts of added sugar and processed carbohydrates that earlier civilizations didn’t eat. Instead, they were consuming animal foods, fruits, vegetables, and nuts for the majority of their diet. This natural approach doesn’t lead to as heavy amounts of tooth decay as today’s diets do.
Humans are living longer than ever thanks to modern medicine and advancements in healthcare. Because the human lifespan is much longer than our earlier relatives, we have to take care of our teeth for an extended period of time, comparatively speaking. According to research, cavemen were only living on average to 30-35 years of age. Today, the average life expectancy is closer to 80! That means you need to make your teeth last longer.
Modern humans tend to have smaller jaws. We live indoors, cook our food, and consume processed, softer diets. That means we tend to have more plaque buildup than if we were eating the same diets as hunters and gatherers did thousands of years ago.
Ancient humans may have eaten more whole foods in their natural forms but were not immune to cavities and gum disease. The remains of early humans have found tooth decay and bone loss typically associated with gum disease.
Also, the cavities they had in their teeth did not seem to be as large or as involved as today's modern cavities usually are. That being said, some ancient historians have found Egyptian remains with high decay rates from eating foods that were extremely gritty.
For example, in order to make flour, ancient Egyptians would grind wheat between stones to create flour. These stones would grind down and leave small abrasive bits in the very flour people ate. This constant consumption of abrasives would cause teeth to wear down over time.
So there we have it, the history of toothbrushes and toothpaste around the world. Today's modern toothbrush and toothpaste options have one major thing in common with their ancient ancestors: keeping teeth clean! But today, we don’t use hog hair or bones and they’re a lot more sterile.
Our ancestors knew that cleaning your teeth was important, and that’s why they began to create tools to use each day. Keeping your teeth clean can reduce your risk of dental concerns like cavities and gum disease. Thanks to the invention and innovations of the toothbrush, humans have evolved to care for their mouths in a way that promotes overall well-being and a healthier smile that lasts decades longer.
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