Toothbrushes: A history | Dr. Rich

Toothbrushes are one of those modern conveniences that we take for granted. Today they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, bristle design, colors and modes of power.

The predecessor of the toothbrush was a simple twig that had been chewed on to fray the plant fibers into a kind of brush. It first appeared in ancient Egypt and Babylonia as far back as 3000 B.C. There are still some people that use this type of tooth cleaning aid today in the rural parts of the southern United States. When I served as a volunteer dentist in Kenya several summers ago, that is what I commonly saw being used by the local people there. Most had never seen the modern toothbrushes we were handing out.

By 1000 A.D, the Chinese were making toothbrush handles out of bamboo or bone with boar's hair bristles. The first mass produced toothbrushes did not appear until the late 1700s in England, and it took another hundred years for mass production of these now common health aids to make it to the United States.

In fact, the practice of brushing your teeth daily was not common in the United States until after World War II. Soldiers returning from the war brought the daily practice, required of them as part of their overall health regimen, home to their families. As a result, the number of decayed and missing teeth in the general population has decreased significantly since that time.

Leaving food particles lodged on and in between your teeth is not a good idea. It feeds the sticky bacterial plaque that causes tooth decay, called strep mutans, causing them to reproduce and give off acidic waste. The acid erodes the hard enamel coating of your teeth.

Other acidic foods and beverages also greatly contribute to the acid attack in your mouth. Some of the worst offenders are soft drinks, even the diet variety. Energy drinks can be even worse for your teeth, as they are often very acidic.

Sour candies and even seemingly healthy things like juice and red wine are all acidic, too, so be conservative in how often you introduce those into your diet.

Sodas soil teeth

Multiple soft drinks per day is an almost certain way to end up with a diagnosis of multiple decayed teeth at your next dental visit.

If you are going to enjoy those things, remember to at least rinse your mouth with water afterward, and consider using a stronger fluoride toothpaste than the ones you get from the grocery store. Your dentist can write you a prescription, and some even have it in their offices for your convenient purchase after your visit. Prevident 5000 is an example of this prescription strength toothpaste. There are also prescription fluoride rinses and gels, which are wise investments if you are having issues with tooth decay or sensitivity due to the acidity of your diet.

Flossing is also critical, as the most common type of cavity I see in adults in my practice is in between the teeth, where a toothbrush can't reach. On back teeth, you miss almost 40 percent of the surfaces if you just use a brush alone.

The first electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland in the 1950s, and one of the most popular and effective electric brushes today, the Sonicare, was invented right here in the Seattle area.

Most studies show that more plaque is removed with an electric brush than a manual one. The latest Sonicare oscillates at 31,000 brush strokes per minute and is demonstrated to be several times more effective than a manual toothbrush, so it's worth the investment, as it costs much less than it does to repair a cavity.

In 2003, the humble toothbrush was selected in a survey of U.S. Americans as the No. 1 invention they could not live without. While today they might choose their cell phone, I'll bet that the toothbrush still ranks high as something most people would not want to give up.

Stuart Rich, DDS, is owner of Simply Smiles, a general practice in Auburn, and writes on a variety of dental topics. He and his team, including associate Dr. Jennifer Fields, treat patients of all ages. He also assists sleep specialist physicians in providing CPAP alternatives to those with Obstructive Sleep Apnea. If you have questions or would like more information, about dentistry or sleep apnea, visit or You may also contact Rich at 253-939-6900 or

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