Throughout history, people have used many methods in the hope of achieving a whiter smile. Did the Romans use urine as a mouthwash?
The Romans used both human and animal urine as a mouthwash. It was effective at whitening teeth due to its ammonia content but likely damaged their tooth enamel in the long term due to its corrosiveness.
For more on how the Romans used urine to whiten their teeth, read on.
Rome and Urine
Scientists have long studied the potential of urine as a substance. The cells contained within have a multitude of uses, even as a possible source of electrical power.
The ancient Romans had their own ideas about how urine could be used. They saw it as a valuable resource, with instances of people bottling urine from public urinals. There was a special tax on urine, so its sale must have been widespread.
The most famous reference to the use of urine as mouthwash came in poetry by Roman writer Catullus. He spoke of somebody called Egnatius, who had a habit of smiling all the time. He mentions that, in Spain (part of the Roman Empire at the time), whenever people urinated they used it to brush their teeth.
By his logic, this meant that anybody who was proud of possessing a particularly white smile had it because of the amount of urine they used to clean their teeth. Human urine was not used exclusively; there are also records of animal urine being used instead.
There was a process to the creation of Roman urine mouthwash; it wasn’t used immediately after a person urinated. Instead, it was stored in jars for a period of time, until the urine became sterile and its ammonia content became fully active. It was then diluted in water to weaken it.
Diluting the urine was necessary because its ammonia content was corrosive and would have likely caused damage if the teeth were exposed to it for too long. This is why ammonia is used in cleaning products for items such as ovens and refrigerators today, rather than for oral hygiene purposes.
The Romans had a keen interest in dentistry, with proof that professional dentists existed in Rome thousands of years ago. These dentists don’t appear to have been capable of much in the way of preventative dentistry and the bulk of their time was spent pulling teeth and dispensing ancient painkillers.
It isn’t clear exactly how widespread the Roman use of urine was, if it was more popular in certain locations or if it declined in popularity.
Advancements in Mouthwash
While it’s easy to dismiss the Roman use of urine mouthwash as a misguided part of the ancient world, urine continued to be a key component in mouthwash. It was widely used in mouthwash until the 1700s.
The key component in urine for removing stains was ammonia, which removed stains. In time, people discovered that they could create urea in a laboratory without needing to extract it from urine.
Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist, accomplished this in 1828 when he combined ammonium chloride and silver cyanate, proving that it was possible to create organic materials via artificial means. This marked the beginning of organic chemistry, a branch of chemistry that focuses on the composition of organic compounds.
Wöhler’s techniques inspired widespread interest from his successors and people began creating all sorts of different compounds. These included the substances that became key components in modern-day toothpaste and mouthwash.
Joseph Lister, an English doctor, was the first surgeon to sterilize his operating room with antiseptic in 1865. This greatly reduced the number of infections that patients received and saw antiseptic growing quickly in popularity.
About fifteen years later, Joseph Lawrence created Listerine, named for Joseph Lister’s contributions to antiseptic medicine. The fluid was originally made for the purpose of cleaning surgical wounds, as well as its more famous role as a mouthwash.
Lambert Pharmaceutical acquired the rights to Listerine and began selling it in 1895. It soon became a popular choice with dentists and, in 1914, it became the first antiseptic mouthwash available to the general public.
Thanks to these advances in chemistry, using urine as a mouthwash is thankfully unnecessary in the 21st Century. There are countless different mouthwashes found on store shelves. While they are of varying effectiveness, the vast majority are more effective (and pleasant) than their ancient Roman equivalent.