Tooth-powders: more harm than good?

 “With no other hygienic article have so many sins been committed as with those intended for the teeth; we have had occasion to examine a number of tooth-powders, some of them very high-priced, which are decidedly injurious.”–Dr. George William Askinson, Perfumes and their Preparation, New York, 1892.



This ca. 1750 handwritten recipe for toothpowder, includes cream of tartar and powder of myrrh. (Courtesy of Winterthur Museum and Library)

Dentifrices, or tooth-powders, could be made at home or in a drug store, using either published or handed down recipes made from easily obtainable ingredients. Many ingredients were benign but ineffective, such as cream of tartar, powdered white marble, charcoal, and chalk. Other ingredients, including sugar and pumice, garnered the most controversy. The decaying effects of sugar were debated, as others argued that the granular nature of sugar made it the perfect agent to scrub residue from the surface of the teeth. Likewise, pumice, like powdered coral, was thought by some to clean the teeth, and others to weaken them beyond repair. Regardless of the specific ingredients, most tooth-powder and paste recipes included primarily three types of ingredients: a granular one for scrubbing,  a whitening agent, like cream of tartar, and a third -mint or anise – to freshening the breath. Though tooth-powders were more popular, based on the number of recipes available for their creation, commercial tooth-pastes were also made and sold. These often used the same ingredients, with oil added to moisten them.

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