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Oral hygiene as we know it is a relatively recent invention, so what did people people do before all this existed? Did they even practice oral hygiene? How effective was it? Read on.

Toothbrushing looks pretty much the same in the entire world right now. Children are taught to brush their teeth twice a day from a young age, to try and use floss, and maybe even do some tongue cleaning and a mouthwash if necessary. But what about people who do not have access to the same kind of education and resources a lot of us take for granted? What about the people who live in the heartlands of Africa and India? A brush and some toothpaste are considered a luxury in some areas, while traditional methods of brushing still run strong through other cultures. Some people simply do not see the need to switch over from what their parents, grandparents and everyone around them uses. 

Does this mean that these people have absolutely terrible oral hygiene? Are all their teeth rotting?

What about people all over the world before the toothbrush was invented? The first toothbrush as we know it now was probably fashioned by an English convict with the help of a piece of bone, some gum and some hog bristles in the late 18th century. That is actually relatively recent when you consider the time humans have spent on this planet. The patent for the modern toothbrush design was awarded to H.N Wadsworth in the year 1857, and these brushes remained a novelty item until the invention of Nylon almost 70 years later.

So how was oral hygiene practiced before all this?

The Chew stick

Cultures across the world turned to nature to provide them the tools to clean their teeth. The traditional method of brushing actually did not require much brushing at all! It involved chewing on soft wood from trees to clean the teeth and even fight bad odor. It is believed to have been used by the Babylonian civilization, the Greeks, and Romans. The Egyptians used it during the peak of their civilizations and its use still continues in Africa, the Middle East and Asia in extremely large numbers. Chew sticks were made from a number of different tree branches and twigs, depending upon the geographical availability.

The chew stick is extremely basic. It is basically just a twig broken off the right tree. Popular choices for making these chew sticks include mango, lime (popular in Africa),neem, guava and Miswak. 

Miswak (Salvadora persica)  in particular is considered to be the most ideal kind of chew stick. It is extremely popular with the Muslim population in Asia and the Middle East.

The Europeans were believed to have used the chew stick as a method of oral hygiene, however it was never as popular in their culture as it was around the world. The Chinese, who are considered to be the first people to have started using a rudimentary toothbrush made out of hog hair bristles also have some evidence of using the chew stick, probably as a result of their interaction with the civilizations from the Indian subcontinent.

This form of natural dental care has been studied and found to be remarkably effective at preventing dental disease.

How Did Traditional Methods Of Toothbrushing Work?

Why Was Dental disease Not Rampant Before The Invention Of Modern Brushing Methods?

This is one of the most interesting questions that come up when discussing traditional toothbrushing techniques. The logical conclusion seems to be that either the traditional methods were very effective, the generations that came before us very resistant to dental disease or maybe even that modern brushing methods are not effective enough. The truth lies somewhere in between and is a combination of all these things.

Dental research has shown us conclusively that the most important thing to maintain oral hygiene is habit. Physically clearing away the plaque from the teeth by the use of chewing sticks prevented pathogenic micro-organism build up. Even though the chewing sticks are not the most dexterous and unable to reach to all the nooks and crannies of the oral cavity, they could provide a significant benefit when compared to no teeth cleaning at all.

Our diet also has undergone a tremendous change since earlier times when food was unprocessed, did not have the amount of sugar in the food that we have today, and was a lot more rougher and fibrous. 

All of these things helped prevent dental diseases from occurring. It is no surprise that in the less developed parts of the world, where such a diet exists even today, the incidence of dental disease is much lower.

Studies have found that chew sticks also provided benefit beyond simple mechanical action, and release certain compounds and chemicals that were antibacterial in nature, prevented the growth of bacteria specifically implicated in tooth decay and gum disease, and promoted an increased amount of salivation that helped flush out bacteria and debris from between the teeth.

Neem in particular also has a potent anti-oxidant effect that helps fight the free radicals produced by the micro-organisms and the body’s own defense cells. This would play a huge role in limiting the amount of inflammation of the gums and the associated damage that occurs as a result of inflammation.

What About Tooth Paste?

None of the cultures of the past actually used tooth paste for brushing while we seem to be inundated with different types of toothpaste all claiming to be invaluable in the fight against oral diseases. What gives? Toothpaste is a useful adjunct to tooth brushing and one that has become an integral part of our cultural habits, however it is not essential for tooth brushing.

Tooth pastes contain certain beneficial properties that help fight bad breath or augment the efficiency of cleaning, but the mechanical action of the brush scraping against the tooth is still the most essential part of maintaining oral hygiene. This is something that has not changed from time immemorial.


It is quite surprising to go back and think about the ingenuity our forefathers had and the methods in which they overcame not having seemingly essential tools. The traditional methods of brushing were not as bad as one would imagine although they did cause an increased amount of abrasion, tooth wear and gingival injuries. There is however no doubt that the modern methods of brushing are superior to the ancient knowledge our forefathers possessed. Keep brushing your teeth, in other words. 

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