Twigs, Oil, and Mud? What History Tells Us About Brushing

Female brushing her teeth in the mirror

When Dr. Dugger instructs patients on the need to care for their oral health, he’s usually referring to brushing twice a day and flossing daily. While most people use a toothbrush and dental floss to complete these daily tasks, not every culture throughout the world cares for their teeth in this way. Many indigenous groups, along with people living in different cultures, use traditional techniques passed down through the ages to clean their teeth.

As with any ancient technique, some of the methods used to clean teeth are more effective than others. One of the most successful techniques is the practice used by many people in the Middle East and some parts of Southeast Asia that involves the use of a twig from the arak tree, referred to as a miswak, to clean their teeth.

By fraying the end of the twig, these cultures create an almost bristle like collection of loose arak strands they use to form the miswak. Once the miswak is ready to be used as a brush, they dip the bristles in a solution of water or rosewater before rubbing the bristles against their teeth.

While this might sound like a poor excuse for a toothbrush, some science sits firmly behind why this technique actually works. The wood of the arak tree actually contains a high concentration of natural fluoride, the same compound commonly found in toothpaste, and other antimicrobial components that work to combat the development of tooth decay.

Twigs from other trees, especially those from aromatic trees that help to freshen the mouth, have been used by other cultures for thousands of years. These so-called “chew sticks” were first recorded being used in Babylonia as far back as 3500 BC, but evidence even suggests their use in China as far back as 1600 BC.

While using twigs can often replace 90 percent of what a toothbrush can accomplish, they can’t clean between teeth very effectively. Additionally, if not properly used, they can cause gum irritation and possible inflammation.

A More Hands-On Approach

Some cultures choose to take a more hands-on approach to their oral health by cleaning their teeth using only their fingers. For example, in some predominantly Muslim countries, people use the bark from the walnut tree to make a paste they then spread over their teeth by hand. The bark of the walnut tree contains natural antimicrobial properties and is also suspected to have a whitening effect on tooth enamel. However, no official research has been conducted to support these claims.

In other parts of the world, a substance consisting of ash, brick powder, mud, and salt is used to clean teeth. While historically used in rural communities in South America and India, this technique offers none of the natural antimicrobial properties as those using tree bark. Additionally, the ingredients used in this types of mixtures are often abrasive, and can lead to the development of sensitive teeth and receding gums when used for many years.

A traditional ingredient that’s made a bit of a recent comeback is charcoal. If you’ve spent much time on social media, you’ve probably seen internet personalities brushing with a black-looking toothpaste they claim actually helps to whiten teeth. These types of charcoal-based toothpaste have been shown effective at whitening teeth while keeping them clean, but they do tend to causes the same types of problems, tooth sensitivity and gum erosion, as the brick powder and mud concoctions used in India.

Another ancient practice that has recently reemerged in popularity is the practice of oil pulling. This ancient Ayurvedic practice involves swishing a small amount of coconut oil around in the mouth for an incredible 15 minutes. (Most people spend roughly one minute brushing each day.) It’s believed this practice helps to remove toxins and bacteria from the mouth. In fact, when practiced along with daily brushing and flossing, studies do seem to suggest that oil pulling can help to reduce the gum inflammation that commonly causes gingivitis.

A Healthy Smile in Any Age

Tooth decay and gum disease will continue to cause problems now and into the future. Fortunately, whether brushing with a toothbrush, twig, or your own fingers, Dr. Dugger will be here to ensure your smile remains looking and feeling its best for a lifetime.