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From the Egyptians to 21st Century teeth whitening

The history of teeth whitening – general facts for the dental profession to know.

22 April, 2024
An animated glance back to the Pharaohs and teeth whitening  

It is easy to become transfixed on the science of today and what we can offer to our patients now. I am going to make a sweeping statement that ‘the history can be overlooked, and less time is spent reading up on the past’. Taking this into account I have spent some time reading various write ups on the history of teeth whitening, extracting the most riveting archives. Then in a brief chronological order connecting the dots applying 21st Century dental reflection on the past, and linking how we have arrived at where we are today.

One may think the desire to have a whiter smile may seem very 21st Century, however the reality is the Egyptians aspirations for a whiter smile were exactly the same 4000 years ago. A whiter smile was depicted as a sign of beauty and wealth.

FAQ – How did the Egyptians share their messages? Painted walls, stone or papyrus seemed to be the standard forms of media communication at the time, somewhat limited and varied to the flooded channels we continue to become accustomed with today.

Fortunately for the dentition of today the modality for teeth whitening has moved on somewhat.  It all started with the desire to make teeth whiter and clean off the external stain; for this chew sticks were used (funny to think chew sticks were the equivalent of our polishing and airflow systems available today).  For the actual modality of teeth whitening the Egyptians were using pumice and vinegar, the Romans were using the ammonia in urine. Undoubtedly both methods would have deemed slightly unfavourable resulting in immeasurable damage for a number of reasons.

Moving onto the 17th Century it seemed you could go to the barbers and get a hair cut and walk out with a whiter smile as they again favoured the acidic ingredients to achieve a whiter smile. Again rather detrimental to the natural dentition.

Taking into account the illegality’s of non-dental professionals such as beauticians carrying out teeth whitening and this being highlighted publicly through news channels more recently. It seems ironic that whitening could be perceived to have taken a full 360 since the 17th Century.

Fast forward to the 21st Century in the 1980’s when peroxide started to be used for teeth whitening. Initially the peroxide was used for it’s antiseptic properties. Before long the dental profession and the public were hooked on the effect of using hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide for teeth whitening.

It would appear that the desire to achieve a whiter smile has been around for centuries.  Fortunately there have been changes throughout the history of teeth whitening, and the modality of teeth whitening continues to be refined. Yet the basic principles of using hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide remain to be the same.

Despite the overall desire to have a whiter smile remaining to be the same, it is important to point out that drive behind wanting a whiter smile may have changed somewhat from the Pharaoh’s smiling in front of the pyramids and writing on stone and papyrus. The daily / hourly updates of selfies on social media has gone bonkers in my humble opinion, and this is a huge consideration for us to reflect on how we look at ourselves, or how others look at us today, and how the dental professional can reflect on what is going on around us.

The demand for teeth whitening has increased to the extent it has become one of the most frequently requested dental procedures by the public today.

What other questions can we ask ourselves and others, that could help in the delivery of information about teeth whitening?
  • How can we orchestrate as a profession an optimal medium for sharing evidence based knowledge appropriately that is public reaching, how can the history be incorporated into this?

For the purpose of the question I am going to focus on social media in my response as it plays such an influential role in reaching the public today. If we were to focus on the subject, the legalities of teeth whitening, it makes sense for the whole profession to publish consistent concise messages with references. It is of course possible to personalise your image or images.

However the underlying message on the legalities of teeth whitening needs to remain the same. If you belong to an association / society it would be possible to work with them to build certain key messages that key people amongst the team can use. The real beauty is working with colleagues throughout the profession, that may have years of experience yet not as savvy with current communication.

  • How healthy are the underlying personal dialogues taking place every second of every minute whilst we consume and review others posts?

I am briefly going to answer this by saying it is important to think prior to posting why you are doing it, what are you posting, what could people interpret from the post?  Does the post deliver exactly what I want it to?

  • How can the dental profession ensure consistent messages are delivered through social media contributing positively to oral health and the understanding of teeth whitening?

Through having evidence based, clear, short concise messages with references, that all professionals post that are endorsed by the associations / society’s is a good point to help with ensuring consistency of information.

  • How can the history be utilised to captivate audiences attention in an educational way?

Through incorporating the comparisons through certain facts from today back in time, it may be possible to create a slightly different post that may be slightly humorous that you could post.

Let me know if the above blog has sparked some questions in your daily practice that you would like to open up discussions on further. How has a glance back in time resonated in you as a dental professional and where we are today?





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