Did the Romans Take Care of their Dental Hygiene?


Most of all the traditional knowledge we have today originated from ancient civilisations like the Roman Empire. That era was known for its advanced medical practice. Roman doctors were able to perform Cesarean sections and amputations. They were able to do pelvic examinations using a speculum, catheterise bladders and even take eyes out. However, though their dental hygiene practices were not stellar, it can be said that their teeth fared better than the teeth of modern people like us.

Dental practices

From a recent study of more than 300 ancient Roman skulls, it was found out that they only have a 5% rate of periodontitis. This is lower than the current rate of 15 to 30% in the UK and 38.8% rate in the U.S. This is very significant because the ancient Romans did not regularly go to the dentist, did not drink water with fluorine and did not floss nor did they ever wonder “what is the best electric toothbrush?” because they didn’t brush their teeth!

Despite these facts, the state of their teeth was amazing. Instead of a toothbrush though, they have chewing sticks. There are various trees whose twigs are used as effective chewing sticks to clean teeth, including olive, walnut, lime tree, orange tree and Salvadora persica. They also used toothpicks and rags. They did not have tobacco then, which is one of the major causes of tooth decay. They did have honey, although sugar at that time was a luxury item.

Alternative toothpaste

Although there is an absence of extensive records about the dental hygiene practices of ancient Romans, it is known that they do use a form of toothpaste and whitening agent, which the modern world would find disgusting.

The Romans though had no qualms to use urine as their toothpaste, taking the ammonia that urine contains to whiten their teeth. A Roman poet named Catullus even described the practice of rubbing their teeth and gums with urine every morning after they have pissed. The indication of how much urine they used was shown by how clean their teeth were. They also used urine as their mouthwash.

Physicians from first century Rome believed that using urine to brush their teeth whitened them. Likewise, they maintained that urine caused the teeth to remain firmly in place in their sockets. It was also said that Roman women belonging to the upper class paid handsomely to procure urine from Portugal. The highly prized urine was the strongest available form of toothpaste/mouthwash in the continent.

But before you turn your noses to this fact, understand that urine was used as an active ingredient in mouthwashes and toothpastes until the 18th century. It may not be widely known then, but it was the ammonia content of the urine that provided the cleansing component. In modern times, ammonia is still used in the manufacture of some toothpastes.

From the study of the teeth found in a Roman Forum in 1987, Romans did suffer from tooth decay. However, the manner of extraction was different. There were no marks on the teeth to indicate that a heavy tool was used to remove them. The traditional practice back then was to loosen each tooth from its socket and some physicians remove part of the patient’s jaw attached to the diseased tooth.

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