The History of Teeth Whitening

The smile has been the subject of art and inspiration ever since the dawn of man. It has graced cave drawings, medieval paintings, renaissance masterpieces, and fashion photographs throughout time. But smiles require one particular component to be beautiful, and that is white teeth.

Just as the love of smiles developed over time, so did the methods of keeping teeth clean and white. The numerous teeth whitening tips and teeth whitening products we use today all have long histories as fascinating as human history itself.

Teeth whitening first began in 3000BC, when the first people began to fray twigs and branches on one end to form a primitive toothbrush called a chew stick. The frayed ends would then be brushed on the teeth to remove food particles, and the sap of the branches would usually contain anti-bacterial and cleaning properties, further adding to the protection.

Since then, over the centuries man saw the creation of the first toothpaste by the Egyptians, made of powdered pumice and white vinegar, which they used along with the chew sticks. Fast forward another few thousand years, and commercialized teeth whitening is born, offered by the barbers of the Middle Ages.

Using nitric acid, the barbers cleaned and whitened their patrons’ teeth in addition to cutting their hair. There was a problem with this method, however, as nitric acid, while capable of whitening and cleaning teeth, also shaved off the protective enamel of the teeth, which resulted in the patrons’ teeth decaying over time.

But this didn’t stop commercial teeth whitening from evolving. Despite the eventual tooth decay, patrons continued to have their teeth whitened by nitric acid over the centuries, until in the 1800s, when Italian dentists discovered fluoride’s teeth-protecting capabilities, putting an end to the nitric acid craze, and making barbers’ work on teeth obsolete.

The Italians then, along with the French, began experimenting with fluoride-laced lozenges that people could put in their mouths to help clean and strengthen the teeth. The Americans soon followed suit, lacing fluoride with water, creating variants of mouthwash.

All of these lead to what we have today, such as teeth whitening gels, which can, in a short period of time, whiten teeth which centuries ago would have taken a lot of effort. And electric toothbrushes can do all the work for the person, and do it properly.

Teeth whitening has come a long way since the chew stick, and will continue to go a long way as human civilization continues to move forward. We may not yet even have an idea of what are the best teeth whitening products.

This article was written by a guest author from who writes about topics on oral health, including teeth whitening.

Comments Add Your Own Comment

  1. Matthew says:

    I really wonder how the author knows that people in 3000BC were binding branches together to whiten their teeth rather than simply cleaning them. When one brushes their teeth after a meal it is not done to whiten your teeth but as a matter of health and cleanliness. Sitting here writing an essay on cosmetic dentistry I wish I could understand better the author’s authority.

    • Editor says:

      Thanks for your comment, Matthew. You are quite right — it seems unlikely that people in the Stone Age cared much about the shade of their teeth.

      This article was written by a guest author, who obviously took some historical license to write an interesting article. We’ve clarified the authorship. I hope that helps.

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