Dental hygiene is far from a recent development: throughout human history, people everywhere and in every society have done their best to keep their teeth clean and healthy. Failing that, they searched for ways to get unhealthy teeth out of their mouths as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
Your teeth aren’t there just to look nice and white for your smile. Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, harder even than bone, and the only reason for this is so that your teeth can tear and crush food into a paste which can pass through your throat and which your stomach can easily digest. Without teeth or dentures, you can’t eat anything tougher than refried beans or baby food, and that’s a life that nobody wants to live.
The history of tooth care dates back at least 7000 years. Ancient Egyptians would rub their teeth clean with sticks, and the Ancient Chinese would do the same by chewing on special twigs from an aromatic tree which would also freshen their breath.
The first toothbrush with bristles came about in the 15th century, and at first they used stiff hairs from pigs and horses. Unfortunately, they weren’t completely effective at cleaning teeth, since bacteria can hide in the cracks and grooves of natural hair. The situation would only change in the 20th century with the invention of nylon, the first real artificial fiber.
Toothpastes and mouthwashes have also been around for a long time. To kill bacteria, ancients would gargle with things like strong alcohol, acids, or salt water. To whiten teeth, they would add white minerals like chalk and abrasives which would scrape away the yellowed outer layer, abrasives like ground-up sea shells and pumice. As for fresh breath, mint wasn’t always the golden standard – cultures around the world would grind up and eat all kinds of good-smelling herbs to make sure their breath wouldn’t stink of old food and rotting teeth. In fact, aromatic breath was the original purpose of a garnish.
While our concern certainly hasn’t wavered over the past several thousand years, our knowledge and our technology have developed far beyond anything our ancestors could have accessed. Modern chemicals in toothpaste and mouthwash are far more effective in fighting bacteria and keeping teeth white, and modern toothbrushes are specifically designed to fit around the grooves of your teeth and scrape every nook and cranny. While brushing your teeth twice each day may take a few minutes you’d rather spend doing something else, you can rest assured that you’re getting better results in less time than any of your ancestors ever could have managed.