ToothpasteTwo or three times a day? And do you go for gimmicks or old fashioned value?

You would be forgiven for thinking toothpaste is a modern phenomenon and that ‘fresh breath confidence’ has only been around since the 1980s, but you couldn’t be more wrong.


Whilst our ancient ancestors battled against our immoderate climate (nothing new there then!); the more sophisticated Ancient Egyptians, in the absence of having to cope with rain, mud, wind, rain and more rain, concerned themselves with oral hygiene and were making pastes and tooth cleaning tools as early as 5,000 BC (tooth picks have been found in ancient tombs).

Healthy white teeth, strong gums and fresh breath were also important to the people of Ancient Greece, Rome, China and India.

But in the absence of McLean’s, the ingredients to create the ‘toothpaste’ varied including pumice, eggshells and ox hoof ash. Crushed bones and oyster shells were popular with the Greeks and the Romans added flavours to their powdered charcoal & bark mix for bad breath.

A piece of cloth or twig was probably used to rub the mixture into the teeth and gums; the 15th century Chinese devised a ‘tooth-brush’ using bristles from pigs’ necks attaching them to a bone or bamboo handle.

In 1780 William Addis designed a toothbrush handle from carved cattle bone and continued to use pig bristles. It is likely that this innovation lead to increased awareness and interest in the concept of oral hygiene in the UK.


During the early 1800s people would create their own concoctions using soap (this continued to be an ingredient until 1945), chalk and ground charcoal. They started to add glycerine that turned the powder into a paste and by the 1850’s ‘Crème Dentifrice’ was being sold in jars.

Colgate was the first company to mass produce toothpaste in 1873.

But it was American Dr Washington Sheffield’s invention of the collapsible tube in 1892 that was the major breakthrough.

It didn’t take long for Colgate to see the benefit of these new tubes and by 1896 production changed from jars to tubes made from lead (lead tubes were still being used until well into the 20th century.)

Following research into tooth decay, fluoride was added as the ‘active ingredient’ in the 1890s by a German firm and at the turn of the century hydrogen peroxide and baking soda were used to whiten teeth.


After the Second World War, American GIs took tubes of toothpaste and toothbrushes back to the United States and it was from the 1950s that things really took off. The new nylon toothbrush undoubtedly also helped.

Sodium lauryl sulphate replaced soap to create a smooth paste and manufacturers began to target specific problems e.g. sensitive teeth.

In 1955 Proctor & Gamble launched their first fluoride toothpaste ‘Crest’. In the same year New Yorker Leonard Lawrence Marraffino sold his patent to create striped toothpaste to Unilever.

Nothing really changed much for the next 25 years then in the 1980s Aquafresh used red, white & blue stripes for their ‘triple protection’: for fresh breath, stronger teeth & to fight cavities.


The purpose of dental hygiene has remained unchanged; tooth decay, gum disease and fresh breath are focussed on now just as much as they were thousands of years ago, and whilst the main ingredients have changed very little, manufacturers are always looking for a new chemical they claim does a better job, but in reality it is only the name that has changed!

In the early 2000s sodium hexametephosphate was added as a whitener and in 2006 synthetic hydroxylapatite was used as an alternative to fluoride.

You may be wondering just what it is you brush with each day; these are some of the ingredients:

  • Sodium fluoride (NaF): most common – it slows down the breakdown of tooth enamel thus helps to prevent cavities
  • Triclosan: antibacterial agent
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS): foaming agent (also found in shampoo)
  • Stannous fluoride (SnF2)
  • Sodium monofluorophosphate (Na2PO3F)

Colours and flavouring e.g. peppermint & spearmint are added to make it more appealing but add nothing of dental value.

If that is not enough to concern you, abrasives that cause a small amount of enamel erosion account for half the content, but are necessary to remove plaque and food residue from teeth.


Being highly toxic, you should never swallow fluoride toothpaste. Children’s teeth form between 0-8 years old and if they consume too much fluoride they will suffer with fluorosis; when fine pearl white lines or flecking appears on the tooth surface or in serious cases, brown or black staining, pitting and crumbling can occur.

Due to zero gravity, astronauts have to swallow toothpaste so they also use a special fluoride free formula.

Of course there is nothing stopping you making your own toothpaste; start with salt and baking soda (bicarbonate) then add a bit of Macbeth … eye of newt, tongue of dog …

The Red White & Blue

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