Romans were particularly meticulous about their oral care, but their toothpaste recipes were anything but ordinary. A primary ingredient in Roman toothpaste was powdered charcoal, derived from various burned substances, including animal bones and oyster shells. This provided the abrasive quality necessary for cleaning teeth. Surprisingly, another ingredient in their dental concoction was crushed mouse brains, believed to enhance the effectiveness of the toothpaste. But the most peculiar ingredient was undoubtedly human urine, imported in large quantities from Portugal. The ammonia in urine was valued for its whitening properties, making it a popular mouth rinse and a teeth whitener.

The Art of Ancient Toothpaste Preparation

Creating toothpaste in ancient Rome was a careful process. The eclectic mix of ingredients, ranging from common herbs to the more peculiar mouse skulls and urine, were ground finely to achieve a smooth, even texture. This powder was then mixed with a binder, such as honey, to transform it into a paste. This toothpaste was not only used for cleaning but also for freshening breath, a crucial aspect of personal hygiene in Roman society. Application methods were somewhat similar to today, involving a stick or early forms of toothbrushes, often twigs, to spread the paste over the teeth.

Roman Dentistry

In the classical era, bad breath was a widespread issue, and toothaches were almost as common. Roman dentists primarily resorted to extracting teeth without the use of anesthetics. However, interestingly, only about one-third of the skeletons excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum’s ruins were found to have missing teeth, and a relatively small number showed signs of cavities.

The peculiarities of Roman dental practices, from their unconventional toothpaste ingredients like powdered mouse brains and human urine to their meticulous preparation methods, highlight an advanced yet unconventional approach to oral hygiene. The effective results of these practices are reflected in the dental health observed in the archaeological remains from Pompeii and Herculaneum, indicating that, despite their odd methods, the Romans had a surprisingly effective dental regimen!

Top image: Image from the Philips Sonicare toothbrush advertisement. Source: CM Dental.

By Joanna Gillan

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