They used a urine mouthwash. Now you know that you'll never have to buy mouthwash again.
Along with toothpaste and dental floss, mouthwash is recommended to fight tooth decay - but did you ever wonder how that fresh-tasting rinse came to be? Read on to find out more about the history of oral and dental hygiene.
Every visit you make to a dentist usually involves some discussion of oral hygiene and how to increase the odds of avoiding new cavities and keeping your breath fresh and smelling good. Dental floss, toothpaste and mouthwash are usually mentioned as the best way to help fight dental decay. But where did mouthwash come from in the first place?
Ancient man found out quickly that keeping your own teeth for as long as possible was a good thing and tried many ways to scrape the tartar and debris from their gums and teeth. While crude toothbrushes could help, a good rinsing with some sort of water or corrosive fluid was sure to help fight decay, if only to freshen the mouth up after eating something with a distinctive smell, like fish or certain types of meat.
But what was in this first mouthwash? Well, you'd be surprised and dismayed to find that the Greeks used donkey's milk. The Romans went a step further and used human urine, specifically Portuguese if they could get some. The rumor was that Portuguese urine was much stronger than the weak liquid that other nations provided, so it was treasured above all others. One theory that has risen about this is that the natural acidity of the Portuguese urine meant that it survived the long trip to Rome and Italy much better than those of other men (and women!) Either way, it was a somewhat unique mouth rinse for the average Roman citizen. Some even used white wine, which was a rather expensive way to clean your teeth! Mixed with a variety of crude toothpastes and brushes, oral hygiene was nothing like it is today? Or is it?
The main ingredient that made ancient mouthwashes so potent was ammonia; a natural ingredient found most commonly in human urine - thus why it was used. As time went on different items were added and subtracted from this basic need to try and make it more palatable to the human taste as well as increase the potency without adding more ammonia and making it totally undrinkable. Honey, ground shells, rabbit and mice heads, even lizard livers were ground up and added into the drink to try and increase the mouthwash's ability to cleanse the teeth of any nasty bacteria. During the early 19th century eucalyptus leaves were added to certain brands to try and make it more palatable to the general public, an ongoing battle to make mouthwash more appealing. As long as you could cover the ammonia smell, you had a chance of making a sale!
In fact, ammonia is still an active ingredient in some modern mouthwashes, but not from human urine. Artificially manufactured in the laboratory, ammonia is now much healthier and less odorous than the original source. As well, it's a lot easier than running around trying to collect human urine from slaves and travelers! During the 18th century ammonia began to be manufactured artificially, increasing the availability for mouthwash production and brand names began to march onto the market. Over time it began to be replaced in parts by alcohol.
Odol was the first recognized antiseptic mouthwash, marketed by Switzerland's Karl August Lingner in 1893 and in fact is still on the market and available for sale to the general public. The Lambert Pharmaceutical Company developed Listerine in the 1880's, but not as a mouthwash. It was originally marketed as a general antiseptic during World War I. After the war ended the company executives were meeting to discuss how to try and keep selling the product and their chief chemist brought up the fact that it could be used to fight halitosis, or bad breath. Turning the entire product around, they began to market Listerine as a mouthwash instead of an antiseptic with the result that sales jumped from just hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions within just a few years.
As time went on the advertising machine began to appeal more and more to the public to use mouthwash as a staple of dental hygiene, using halitosis as their best weapon to promote using their product. Large ads bemoaned the man or woman with bad breath, much as the commercials we see today on television or in our magazines and newspapers. And over the years a variety of products have cropped up to deliver mouthwash in a dizzying number of ways. You can now use a small transparent film to freshen your mouth; you can get a mouth rinse that won't be as strong as your parent's Scope or you can keep on using an old favorite like Listerine.
Over the centuries people have tried to find ways to keep their own teeth safe and secure into old age. Toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwash have always been at the forefront of dental hygiene, but none seem to have the rather distinctive history of mouthwash as truly a jack of all trades. From human urine to ammonia to alcohol to the fresh-smelling and fresh-tasting taste strips of today, mouthwash has come a long way from the Greeks and their donkey milk!