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Should you let someone else use your toothbrush? A potted history of toothbrushing

Recently Peter Dyer, Chair for the BDA Central Committee for Hospital Dentists, was delighted to take part in an episode of the BBC’s programme the ‘Origin of Stuff’ with Katy Brand, looking at the evolution of toothbrushing through history, and to help highlight the importance of regular brushing to look after your teeth.

Peter Dyer origin of stuff Radio 4

The programme took a light-hearted look at the evolution of the toothbrush, from the earliest known ‘brushes’ to today’s ‘new’ technology. 

Peter took along some examples of toothbrushes from the BDA’s Museum amazing collection, as well as a giant model of the mouth and brush, to help explain the best way to brush. 

Public historian, Greg Jenner, of Horrible Histories fame, gave a great overview of the history of dentistry and early toothbrushes, which were just sticks. Peter talked about the early usage of the Miswak, a stick made from the Salvadora persica tree, and which still used today in Muslim cultures to avoid swallowing water during Ramadan.

They also looked at the impact of the introduction of sugar into people’s diets, around the time of Elizabeth I (who famously was known for her love of sweets and her bad teeth), but that it wasn’t until the 19th century that the connection was made, and that reducing sugar and toothbrushing were essential to keeping your teeth healthy. 

Greg talked about the first mass produced toothbrush, similar to the one we know today, and the story of William Addis, who whilst doing a stint in prison, had the idea of putting some brushes from a broom into some bone to be able to clean his teeth! Greg noted this wasn’t really a ‘new’ invention, as the Chinese had been making toothbrushes from c. 620. 

They looked at the range of brushes produced, and the different kinds of hair being used, including hogs and badgers. 

The idea that everyone should be brushing regularly took off after WW1 troops returned home, with brushes they had been given in their kit (although many had just used them for cleaning their boots!).

Peter made the point that teeth need to be brushed twice a day, and that the most recent adult dental survey revealed, rather shockingly, that 23% of adults said they only brushed once. Clearly, we have more work to do to get the messages out there. 

Turning to the more modern-style of toothbrushes, Sophie Thomas, a designer who collects toothbrushes she finds on beaches, discussed the environmental impact of plastic toothbrushes and the issues with those being manufactured today. She pointed out that many are not recyclable, due on the mixing of plastics in their production and Peter suggested that bamboo toothbrushes are now being produced as a more sustainable material, but we still have some way to go. 

Finally, Katy asked us what we do if we end up overnight as someone’s house and don’t have our own toothbrush with us. Would we a) use someone else’s toothbrush, b) use sugar-free gum, c) eat an apple or d) use a stick! 

Peter asked for a fifth option and said that it’s probably best to get some fluoride toothpaste on finger and use that.

Top tip: don’t use someone else’s toothbrush, it’s filled with bacteria from their mouth…! And read some of the BDA’s other top tips for toothbrushing.

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