Try the Oldest Known Recipe For Toothpaste: From Ancient Egypt, Circa the 4th Century BC


Image of Ancient Egypt­ian Den­tistry, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

When we assume that mod­ern improve­ments are far supe­ri­or to the prac­tices of the ancients, we might do well to actu­al­ly learn how peo­ple in the dis­tant past lived before indulging in “chrono­log­i­cal snob­bery.” Take, for exam­ple, the area of den­tal hygiene. We might imag­ine the ancient Greeks or Egyp­tians as prone to ram­pant tooth decay, lack­ing the ben­e­fits of pack­aged, brand­ed tooth­paste, silken rib­bons of floss, astrin­gent mouth­wash, and ergonom­ic tooth­brush­es. But in fact, as tooth­paste man­u­fac­tur­er Col­gate points out, “the basic fun­da­men­tals” of tooth­brush design “have not changed since the times of the Egyp­tians and Babylonians—a han­dle to grip, and a bris­tle-like fea­ture with which to clean the teeth.” And not only did ancient peo­ple use tooth­brush­es, but it is believed that “Egyp­tians… start­ed using a paste to clean their teeth around 5000 BC,” even before tooth­brush­es were invent­ed.

In 2003, cura­tors at a Vien­nese muse­um dis­cov­ered “the world’s old­est-known for­mu­la for tooth­paste,” writes Irine Zoech in The Tele­graph, “used more than 1,500 years before Col­gate began mar­ket­ing the first com­mer­cial brand in 1873.” Dat­ing from the 4th cen­tu­ry AD, the Egypt­ian papyrus (not shown above), writ­ten in Greek, describes a “pow­der for white and per­fect teeth” that, when mixed with sali­va, makes a “clean tooth paste.” The recipe is as fol­lows, Zoech sum­ma­rizes: “…one drach­ma of rock salt—measure equal to one hun­dredth of an ounce—two drach­mas of mint, one drach­ma of dried iris flower and 20 grains of pep­per, all of them crushed and mixed togeth­er.”

Zoech quotes Den­tist Heinz Neu­man, who remarked, “Nobody in the den­tal pro­fes­sion had any idea that such an advanced tooth­paste for­mu­la of this antiq­ui­ty exist­ed.” Hav­ing tried the ancient recipe at a den­tal con­fer­ence in Aus­tria, he found it “not unpleas­ant”

It was painful on my gums and made them bleed as well, but that’s not a bad thing, and after­wards my mouth felt fresh and clean. I believe that this recipe would have been a big improve­ment on some of the soap tooth­pastes used much lat­er.

Dis­cov­ered among “the largest col­lec­tion of ancient Egypt­ian doc­u­ments in the world,” the doc­u­ment, says Her­mann Har­rauer, head of the papyrus col­lec­tion as the Nation­al Library in Vien­na, “was writ­ten by some­one who’s obvi­ous­ly had some med­ical knowl­edge, as he used abbre­vi­a­tions for med­ical terms.”

When we sur­vey the den­tal reme­dies of Medieval Eng­land, we do indeed find that mod­ern den­tal care is far bet­ter than much of what was avail­able then. Most den­tal cures of the time, writes Trevor Ander­son in a Nature arti­cle, “were based on herbal reme­dies, charms and amulets.” For exam­ple, in the 1314 Rosa Angli­ca, writer John of Gad­des­den reports, “some say that the beak of a mag­pie hung from the neck cures pain in the teeth.” Anoth­er rem­e­dy involves stick­ing a nee­dle into a “many foot­ed worm which rolls up in a ball when you touch it.” Touch the aching tooth with that roly-poly nee­dle and “the pain will be erased.”

How­ev­er, “there is also doc­u­men­tary evi­dence,” writes Ander­son, “for pow­ders to clean teeth and attempts at fill­ing car­i­ous cav­i­ties,” as well as some sur­gi­cal inter­ven­tion. In Gilber­tus Angli­cus’ 13th cen­tu­ry Com­pendi­um of Med­i­cine, read­ers are told to rub teeth and gums with cloth after eat­ing to ensure that “no cor­rupt mat­ter abides among the teeth.” In The Tro­tu­la—a com­pendi­um of folk reme­dies from the 11th or 12th century—we find many recipes for what we might con­sid­er tooth­paste, though their effi­ca­cy is dubi­ous. Danièle Cybul­skie at quotes one recipe “for black teeth”:

…take wal­nut shells well cleaned of the inte­ri­or rind, which is green, and… rub the teeth three times a day, and when they have been well rubbed… wash the mouth with warm wine, and with salt mixed if desired.

Anoth­er, more extrav­a­gant, recipe sounds imprac­ti­cal.

Take burnt white mar­ble and burnt date pits, and white natron, a red tile, salt, and pumice. From all of these make a pow­der in which damp wool has been wrapped in a fine linen cloth. Rub the teeth inside and out.

Yet a third recipe gives us a lux­u­ry vari­ety, its ingre­di­ents well out of reach of the aver­age per­son. We are assured, how­ev­er, that this for­mu­la “works the best.”

Take some each of cin­na­mon, clove, spike­nard, mas­tic, frank­in­cense, grain, worm­wood, crab foot, date pits, and olives. Grind all of these and reduce them to a pow­der, then rub the affect­ed places.

Whether any of these for­mu­las would have worked at all, I can­not say, but they like­ly worked bet­ter than charms and amulets. In any case, while medieval Euro­pean texts tend to con­firm cer­tain of our ideas about poor den­tal hygiene of the past, it seems that the dai­ly prac­tices of more ancient peo­ples in Egypt and else­where might have been much more like our own than we would sus­pect.

via The Tele­graph/

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.

Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

How the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids Were Built: A New The­o­ry in 3D Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Dan Colman says:


    We weren’t pre­sent­ing this as news. And we men­tioned the Tele­graph sto­ry twice.

    The bot­tom line is that we don’t sub­scribe to the­o­ry that just because an ancient recipe was men­tioned in the press once, it can nev­er be dis­cussed again.

    But thanks for stop­ping by,

  • Aidan Alper says:

    not help full I hate it!!!!!!!!!!

  • Sylver says:

    Ia actu­al­ly have to say the final recipe for a tooth ache may have actu­al­ly helped. Because even NOW in mod­ern times if you buy the in-store tooth ache kits, the main ingre­di­ent in the “pain reliev­er” is actu­al­ly clove as it has a numb­ing effect. as does the cin­na­mon. So, that last one would actu­al­ly work on minor toothaches. Just throw­ing that out there.

  • Menna says:

    This jaw is not Egypt­ian! It is from Sai­da in Lebanon and on dis­play at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Beirut Muse­um.

  • Jon says:

    Your title needs atten­tion. Fourth Cen­tu­ry AD and 4th Cen­tu­ry BC are not equiv­a­lent.

  • Osiris Tours says:

    That’s real­ly great news! Always the ancient Egyp­tians sur­pris­es us with amaz­ing secrets.
    The ancient Egypt­ian his­to­ry was divid­ed into 3 king­doms.
    The Old King­dom (2700 – 2200 BC): Dur­ing this peri­od the ancient pharaohs start­ed build­ing the pyra­mids. They start­ed with Djos­er step pyra­mid then they built the Great Pyra­mids of Giza, the pyra­mids of Khu­fu, Menkau­ra, and Khae­fra. Amongst all the pyra­mids, the 481 feet pyra­mid of Khu­fu is the biggest.
    The ancient Egyp­tians used more than two mil­lions of stone blocks, each weight­ing about two and half tons were used to build each of these Great Pyra­mids.

    The Mid­dle King­dom (2100 B.C. – 1800 B.C.): Dur­ing this peri­od, the ancient Egyp­tians were buried inside the hid­den tombs instead of the pyra­mids to keep their bod­ies and their trea­sures away from the eyes of the tombs rob­bers.

    The New King­dom (1500 B.C. – 337 B.C.): At the begin­ning of this peri­od, the ancient Egyp­tians suf­fered from some invaders called the Hyk­sos but the Egypt­ian were able to win and kick them out of Egypt by the famous leader Ahmose.
    The New King­dom is con­sid­ered to be the Gold­en Era of the ancient Egypt­ian civ­i­liza­tion. Dur­ing the New King­dom time, some of the great kings and queens ruled Egypt and cre­at­ed the his­to­ry of the cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion lands such as Queen Hat­shep­sut, King Ram­ses II, King Tut, King Seti I and more.

  • eashtonmiles says:

    These ele­ments can­not be bro­ken.

  • Lynn says:

    The title still is rough­ly 800 years off from the quot­ed time peri­od.

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