History Stories

The Dental Health Story

Table of Contents


Below is an overview of the history of dental health and hygiene, tracing its development from ancient times to the modern era. It explores various cultural practices and beliefs about dental health, as well as the evolution of scientific understanding and technological advancements in dentistry.

The post highlights the importance of dental hygiene in preventing oral diseases and maintaining overall health.

The post also highlights the history of dental health from across the world from ancient to modern times and the adoption of dental hygiene practices and how some had to overcome cultural resistance.

Why is dental health or hygiene important?
  1. Prevention of Tooth Decay: Good dental hygiene practices such as brushing and flossing help to remove plaque and bacteria from the teeth and gums, preventing the formation of cavities and tooth decay.
  2. Prevention of Gum Disease: Poor dental hygiene can lead to the buildup of plaque and bacteria, which can cause gum disease. Gum disease can cause gum recession, bone loss, and eventually tooth loss.
  3. Fresh Breath: Good dental hygiene helps to prevent bad breath, which can be caused by the buildup of bacteria in the mouth.
  4. Overall Health: Poor dental hygiene has been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Good dental hygiene helps to reduce the risk of these and other health problems.

What about the people in ancient times? How did they manage to take care of their dental health? Let’s take a quick look at different practices around the world.

Dental hygiene in ancient times – around the world

Dental hygiene practices using natural ingredients have been found in several parts of the world, including:


Indigenous peoples across Africa had their own traditional methods for maintaining dental health. For example, the Maasai tribe in Kenya and Tanzania used sticks from the arbor tree to clean their teeth, while the Himba people in Namibia used a mixture of crushed tree bark and charcoal to brush their teeth.

Some African tribes also used natural remedies to treat toothaches, such as chewing on garlic or using a paste made from ginger and salt.

Ancient Egypt

Egyptians used a mixture of salt, pepper, and mint to clean their teeth, and they also used twigs from the Salvadora persica tree (also known as the “toothbrush tree”) to clean their teeth.

China and Southeast Asia

Traditional dental health practices in China and Southeast Asia include the use of natural remedies such as herbs and roots.

For example, people in China have used ginseng and green tea to promote dental health and fresh breath for centuries.

In Southeast Asia, the use of betel leaf, which contains antiseptic properties, was a common practice for cleaning teeth and freshening breath.

Additionally, traditional Chinese medicine includes acupuncture and acupressure points that can be used to relieve tooth pain and other dental problems.

Ancient india

Ancient Indians used various methods to take care of their dental hygiene. One such method was the use of twigs from specific trees, such as neem, banyan, and mango, which were chewed on one end to create a brush-like tip. These twigs were believed to have antibacterial properties and were used to clean teeth and freshen breath.

Another method was the use of herbal tooth powders made from ingredients such as cinnamon, salt, and alum. These powders were applied to the teeth and gums using a finger or brush.
More information about dental health in India

Additionally, oil pulling, or swishing oil (such as sesame or coconut) in the mouth for several minutes, was also a common practice for oral hygiene.

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Ancient Greece and Rome

The Greeks and Romans used a variety of natural ingredients for dental hygiene, including charcoal, myrrh, and frankincense.

Ancient Romans used urine as a mouthwash

Source 1 & Source 2

People in ancient Greece also used a mixture of alum and honey to clean their teeth and freshen their breath, while ancient Romans used urine as a mouthwash (due to its high ammonia content).

Yes, that is a historical fact. The ancient Romans did use urine as a mouthwash, among other uses, due to its high ammonia content. This may seem strange to us today, but it was a common practice in ancient times when people had limited knowledge and resources for maintaining oral health.

The Greeks and Egyptians, also used various substances for dental hygiene, including crushed bones, eggshells, and ashes. It’s important to note that while these practices may seem strange or unappealing to us now, they were based on the limited knowledge and resources available at the time, and were considered effective by the people who used them.


In ancient Europe, dental hygiene practices were limited, and tooth decay was a common problem.

During the Middle Ages, people in Europe used a variety of natural remedies to treat toothaches and other dental problems, such as using a mixture of salt and pepper or placing a piece of raw onion on the affected tooth.

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North America

Sage was used by several Indigenous groups in North America, such as the Navajo and Pueblo tribes, as a natural antiseptic to clean their teeth and gums. Chamomile was also used by some groups, such as the Cherokee, as a natural remedy for toothaches and gum inflammation.

Indigenous groups in North America, such as the Inuit (Eskimo) and First Nations tribes in Canada, had their own unique dental health practices. The Inuit, who lived in the Arctic region, did not have access to plants for cleaning their teeth, so they used a traditional method of chewing on animal hides or sinews to keep their teeth clean.

It is important to note that the use of specific plants for dental health varied depending on the region and cultural practices of each group.

South America

Dental hygiene practices in South America vary by country and region.

In some areas, natural remedies like herbs and bark are still used, while in others, modern dental hygiene products are more common.

The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest also had their own methods for maintaining dental health. For example, the Yanomami tribe in Brazil and Venezuela used a mixture of crushed tree bark and charcoal to clean their teeth, while the Matsés tribe used a type of vine with antiseptic properties to rinse their mouths and promote oral health.

In ancient Peru, people used to chew on coca leaves to clean their teeth.

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Caribbean Islands

The Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Islands, such as the Taíno and Carib, used various natural methods to maintain their dental health. For example, the Taíno used a mixture of crushed seashells and plant ashes to clean their teeth, while the Carib chewed on guava leaves to freshen their breath and promote dental health.


Aboriginal people in Australia traditionally used chew sticks made from twigs of the tea tree plant, which contains antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. They also used clay from termite mounds as a toothpaste, which helped to remove plaque and bacteria. In addition, some Aboriginal groups used eucalyptus leaves to freshen breath and as an antiseptic.

New Zealand

The Māori people of New Zealand used a variety of natural materials to maintain their dental health, such as horopito leaves, which have antibacterial properties, and the roots of the kūmarahou plant, which were used as a natural toothbrush. The sap of the kawakawa tree was also used to treat toothaches and other dental problems.

Other Pacific Islands

Indigenous peoples on other Pacific Islands, such as Fiji and Samoa, also had their own traditional dental health practices. For example, in Samoa, coconut oil was used for oil pulling, which involves swishing oil in the mouth to remove bacteria and improve oral health. In Fiji, the bark of the Dilo tree was used to treat toothaches and gum infections.

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How did modern toothpaste evolve?

Toothpaste as we know it today was first developed in the 19th century.

The earliest recorded recipe for a modern toothpaste was created by a British physician named Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield in the 1850s.

Dr. Sheffield’s toothpaste was a powdery substance made from chalk and soap, and it was sold in a jar. Other early toothpaste formulations included a mixture of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, which was used as a tooth powder.

In the early 20th century, toothpaste began to be sold in tubes, which made it more convenient and hygienic to use. In the 1950s, the first fluoride toothpaste was introduced, which helped to reduce tooth decay.

The widespread adoption of toothpaste was initially slow, due to several factors. One was the cost – early toothpaste formulations were expensive and not accessible to everyone.

Another factor was the lack of education around dental hygiene – many people didn’t understand the importance of brushing their teeth regularly.

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Brushing teeth in the USA

Let us take a look at how dental hygiene was practiced in the US of A for more context, as it is a country well known to be one of the most technological advances but a relatively new nation.

During the recruitment of soldiers for World War I in the US army, it was found that many potential recruits had poor dental hygiene. This was a concern for the army because soldiers with bad teeth were more likely to develop infections and other health problems.

In the early 1900s barely 7% of the US population brushed their teeth. Thanks to an innovative campaign by a start adverting executive, it went up to 65% within a decade – and a star Pepsodent was born!

Pepsodent Vintage Ad
Pepsodent Advertisement – from an old newspaper

Read more about it below:


Read more about the Pepsodent Ad Campaign and how it has an important lesson on The Power Of Habit!

However, as dental health education campaigns became more widespread and toothpaste became more affordable, the use of toothpaste and toothbrushes became more common.

Today, toothpaste is widely used around the world, and there are many different brands and formulations available to suit different needs and preferences.

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Image at the top –

Photo by Loren Joseph on Unsplash