8 Bizarre Oral Care Methods Throughout History That Will Make You Gag

Filth, putrescence, and utter revulsion are probably not the words that come to mind when considering the pursuit of pearly whites. However, if you were to take a trip back in time, you would find that the desire to have sparkling teeth was the catalyst to some seriously disgusting ways people took care of their smiles.

It is no surprise that people fear the dentist given their proclivity to cause pain. But, if people had even the slightest inkling of the history of that profession, they would probably run away screaming. (Although some people still do that anyway.) The truth is, dentistry was just as much a “practice” as modern day medicine. However, the historic methods of such practice will turn anybody’s stomach. Check out these weird dental practices from the past.

Photo: rgerber / Pixabay / CC0 1.0

  • Urine Toothpaste in Ancient Rome

    The story is that ancient Romans were so desirous of gleaming grins they chose to gargle and brush their teeth with human urine. As if that’s not gag-worthy enough, they also determined that urine from Portugal was the most desirable, as it was the strongest. Some suspect that the length of time it took to arrive is actually what amped up its intensity.

    This same urine that made teeth whiter was actually capable of fighting cavities, too - and its popularity was still quite widespread into the 1700s. Shockingly, the man called the father of modern dentistry, Pierre Fauchard, wrote extensively about this practice in The Surgical Dentist, the first guide to dentistry.

    He recommended rinsing one’s mouth with a spoonful of one’s own urine twice a day, claiming it provided a great deal of relief to people experiencing tooth pain and decay. He stated that one had to keep the urine in one’s mouth for a considerable amount of time and had to repeat the process for several days. He also admitted that the process was not very agreeable and was, therefore, an acquired taste. 

    The real shocker? Scientists say that urine is helpful for cleaning teeth thanks to its ammonia composition.

  • Vinegar & Pumice Stone in Egypt

    Vinegar & Pumice Stone in Egypt
    Photo: LACMA / Wikimedia Commons

    The pharaohs and their Egyptian constituents created a paste out of wine vinegar and pumice stone. The abrasiveness of the pumice, and cleansing properties of the vinegar, aided in the realization of glowing smiles.

  • Aqua Fortis in the Middle Ages

    Aqua Fortis in the Middle Ages
    Photo: Georg Agricola / Wikimedia Commons

    In the Renaissance and Middle Ages, barbers (who were often dually employed as surgeons) devoted time to their clientele’s choppers. They were prone to utilizing aqua fortis (a fancy way of saying "nitric acid") on the teeth they had painstakingly filed to luminous perfection. Unfortunately, the nitric acid was highly corrosive. So, those gorgeous teeth quickly decayed thanks to the elimination of the enamel.

  • Traveling Tooth-Pullers Worldwide

    Traveling Tooth-Pullers Worldwide
    Photo: Franz Anton Maulbertsch / Wikimedia Commons

    Surely you're familiar with traveling salesmen - people who went door to door, selling things like vacuums and other household items. With that in mind, conjure up the image of a barber-surgeon traveling from town to town offering to remove one’s decaying teeth.

    Don’t forget: there was no anesthesia. So the show would go on with local townspeople getting their teeth ripped out by the traveling tooth puller. People would stop and gawk at their friends and neighbors in horror and pain.

    And if they could make it through all that, they might get a shave and a haircut in the deal too. 

  • Helpful Hippos Around the Globe

    Well, the hippo wasn’t aware of its assistance, but its ivory was used to create dentures, including the bottom half of George Washington’s. His dentures also had human teeth fixed in place by gold rivets. 

    While the hippo’s ivory helped hold in other people’s teeth, it did not assist with eating or looking one’s best. George Washington was very particular about the reshaping of the carved apparatus because he didn’t want his lips to look as if they were pointing out from under his nose or swelling.

  • Chewing Sticks in the Middle East

    Chewing sticks have long been used by Muslims. The prophet Muhammad recommended their use in the Quran. These sticks have been called "the earliest known 'toothbrushes,'" and are composed of pieces of wood from the Salvadora persica, colloquially called the "toothbrush tree."

    While chewing on wood may sound a little odd, there is some scientific evidence to back the process. In fact, even the World Health Organization supports their use in modern times. The sticks themselves consist of sodium bicarbonate and tannic acid. It’s like using an antibacterial version of baking soda.

    But, if chewing sticks weren’t good enough for members of antiquity, they could have employed the Chinese method of horse and hog hair bristles implanted in ox bone or ivory. But these cleaning apparatuses were quite costly.