History of Teeth Whitening

The History of Teeth Whitening, from Fremont Cosmetic & Family Dentists

Throughout history many cultures have regarded bright, white teeth as a sign of health and affluence. In fact, a radiant smile was so highly sought after down through the ages that many people undertook some questionable, dangerous, and downright disgusting practices in pursuit of one.

Ancient Egypt

For countless millennia early man was without recourse to any sort of oral health care measures let alone access to tooth whitening techniques. This began to change about 4,000 years ago.

Ancient Egyptians were enamored with the concept of eternal health and beauty. This shows in many of their religious practices and lifestyle choices. This proclivity towards perfection led them to devise the world’s first system of teeth whitening which consisted of a paste of ground pumice stone mixed with wine vinegar. This paste was brushed onto the teeth with frayed sticks in order to give one that wealthy look the Gods favored.

Ancient Rome

While an acidic stone wash applied with twigs is not an ideal method it seems somehow more desirable than how our Ancient Roman counterparts went about brightening their smiles. The prevailing methodology for teeth whitening at the time was to use a blend of goat’s milk and stale urine. 
Though the prospect of placing urine anywhere near one’s mouth sounds horrific and unlikely to compel anyone to want to “…do like the Romans” it was actually a very sensible practice. You see, urine contains ammonia which is a natural bleaching agent that also kills bacteria. Thankfully for us postmodern sorts it was identified that it was ammonia which caused the bleaching and the practice of using urine was abandoned. 

The Renaissance 

Fast forward almost 1,500 years and we see the beginnings of convenient teeth whitening methods. The convenience in this case came from the fact that you could get your teeth whitened, your ailments cured, and your hair cut all by the same person, your barber. 

In a time before dentists, and because dental remedies were so scarce, most barbers saw to oral health woes by simply pulling teeth and hoping for the best. Of course this doesn’t work if the teeth were otherwise healthy and just in need of some aesthetic improvements such as whitening. For this, barbers would file down a patient’s teeth and apply nitric acid to wear away stains. As with most barber applied treatments of the time (such as bleeding people with leeches to cure disease) this practice was not only uncomfortable but also counterproductive. While it did make teeth whiter, the acid damaged the enamel and made teeth more susceptible to decay. 

The Genesis of Modern Teeth Whitening Methods

As the world came to embrace rationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, dentistry blossomed as a science. Dental professionals sought proactive means of preventing gum disease and staving off oral infections. Dentists discovered that hydrogen peroxide yielded the most rewarding effects and began to develop ways to enable patients to keep it in contact with their gums for longer periods of time. It was discovered that prolonged exposure to peroxide not only treated the gums but also had the effect of whitening the teeth. 

Teeth Whitening in the 20th Century

Peroxide was first used for the sole purpose of teeth whitening in 1884. By 1918 it was discovered that a heated lamp in conjunction with hydrogen peroxide lead to much more pronounced results. This method of teeth whitening was the industry standard for over 40 years until a dentist in the 1960’s discovered that prescribing an overnight soak of carbamide peroxide using an orthodontic positioner lead to even greater whitening results than had previously been achieved.

The idea of whitening trays did not really begin to take off until the 1980’s however. In 1989 a whitening gel known as Opalescence was first patented and tooth bleaching trays were being custom made to fit the exact mold of the patient’s teeth. This innovation caused the number of people seeking tray whitening to snowball and also helped launch the strip whitening market.

Modern Times

Today there are a plethora of tooth whitening treatments available. In fact, many can be purchased over-the-counter and applied at home. Since these products vary in cost and reliability, the quickest and most dependable whitening methods are those applied by your dentist. 

One of the most recommend brands of teeth whitening the world over is the Philips ZOOM! Whitening system. The procedure begins with a short preparation to cover the lips and gums, leaving the teeth exposed. The dentist applies the Zoom hydrogen peroxide whitening gel, which works in tandem with the Zoom LED light to penetrate the teeth and break up the discoloration. The complete procedure takes less than an hour. 

As teeth whitening methods are becoming ever more effective and less expensive it is a safe bet that they will continue to increase in popularity and that people will continue to seek the perfect smile for many generations to come, just as they always have.


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