Toothpaste dates back to Greek and Roman times, and for the first two thousand years of its history tended to be rather nasty, abrasive stuff. It was not until late in the 19th Century that anything was formulated that could be said with any confidence not to do more harm than good.
Early toothpastes were powder that had to be mixed with water, until ready-mixed toothpaste finally surpassed powdered dentifrice in popularity early in the 20th Century.
In 1814, dentist Benjamin James wrote Treatise on the Management of the Teeth, with a chapter tackling dentifrice. We have looked at some dubious medical advice from the past in previous snippets (11, 15 and 18) but here for once is a 19th Century book that gives sensible advice: James suggested brushing just with water, which was the best option available at the time. However, the details of dentifrices available at the time and the damage they did is an eye-opener.
It is safer to trust to a brush, and cold water, altogether, than to use dentifrices, of the composition of which we are doubtful.
Those powders, which are extolled for immediately whitening the teeth, are all pernicious, as they produce their effect by a decomposition and removal of the surface of the enamel; and, if often used, they rob the teeth of their elegant covering, and eventually leave a row of decaying, brown, and offensive stumps, which ruin the health, and disgust the nose and eye of the observer.
Cream of tartar is a very common ingredient, in these noxious dentifrices, which, like acids of all kinds, ought to be avoided by those, who do not wish to sacrifice their teeth to a temporary elegance of appearance…
Alum, table-salt, and all other saline articles, are improper to be used alone, or to enter into the composition of dentifrice. The acids, which make a part of such substances, are generally of the most powerful kinds…
Many dentifrices contain so large a proportion of grinding substances, viz. coral, pumice-stone, emery, &c. that one hour’s steady application of them, with a brush, has removed the enamel from a tooth, placed in a vice for the experiment.
From this fact we may ascertain, pretty nearly, the time required for the destruction of the enamel, under the daily use of the powder. Suppose such dentifrice to be used for ten seconds each day; by this calculation, we see, that it requires but one year’s perseverance in its use, to ruin the teeth.