For as long as most of us can remember, the basics of oral health and hygiene have been pretty well set in stone. With entire generations passing on how we care for our teeth and gums, it’s easy to assume that dentistry is a stagnant field.
But taking a slightly longer view of the history of dental care reveals just how significant the innovations in dental care have been. And, considering what kinds of advancements are on the horizon for the future makes it even more exciting to be at this point in the history of oral health.
The history of the toothbrush
Did you know that the modern toothbrush as we know it was actually devised and patented in 1938?
Prior to this nylon-bristled invention, the mainstay of daily dental cleaning was a wooden or bone handle with stiff bristles from the back of a wild boar inserted in the end. This early toothbrush was first used in China over 500 years ago and was still being produced until 1938.
The modern nylon toothbrush became increasingly popular in the United States as WWII veterans returned home and the growing population was influenced by the strict oral health practices instituted in the military.
For thousands of years, humans routinely cleaned their teeth using “chew sticks”, thin branches that were chewed on one end until they were frayed soft.
"Prior to this nylon-bristled invention, the mainstay of daily dental cleaning was a wooden or bone handle with stiff bristles from the back of a wild boar inserted in the end."
The history of dental floss
It wasn’t until the late 1880s that various forms of silk dental floss were being produced commercially. During the 1940s, nylon replaced silk as the material of choice because of its consistent texture and resistance to shredding. Waxed floss and dental tape soon followed the introduction of nylon floss.
Today, floss comes in many different shapes, sizes, and materials. One popular option developed commercially in the late 1980s is the Y-shaped floss pick that makes it easier to reach difficult areas. While floss picks are generally twice as expensive as standard dental floss, many users feel their convenience is well worth the price.
The style and material most recommended by dentists? Whichever one makes you willing to floss at least once every day.
The history of professional dental careFrom ancient times through the 18th century
While archaeologists and anthropologists have found clear evidence of surgical, restorative, and even cosmetic dentistry as far back as 10,000 years ago, the kind of professional dental care we’re used to today has really only been an established discipline since the early 1700’s with French surgeon Pierre Fauchard being credited as “the father of modern dentistry.”From the 19th century to the 20th century
In 1859, the American Dental Association (ADA) was formed. In 1867, the Harvard University Dental School became the first university-affiliated institution to focus solely on dentistry. Within the next 30 years, many of the tools and devices we now associate with a visit to the dentist were either invented or vastly improved, including the dentist’s chair, the electric dental drill, and modern orthodontics.
In 1890, dentist Willoughby Miller published a book entitled, Micro-organisms of the Human Mouth, which first linked microbes with tooth decay, bad breath, and gingivitis. Its publication set off unprecedented public interest in oral hygiene including daily toothbrushing and flossing.The 20th century
In 1913, a specialization that would soon be named “dental hygienist” was developed when Dr. Alfred Fones opened his clinic for teaching professional teeth cleaning in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Most of his first class of graduates were hired by the Bridgeport Board of Education to clean the teeth of local schoolchildren. The subsequent drop in the number of cavities these children experienced compared to other school districts led to a huge surge in the popularity of professional teeth cleaning and encouraged the semiannual routine dental visit as the standard of care.
Other huge advancements in modern dentistry came in rapid succession throughout the 20th century, including:
- Novocain (1905)
- A casting machine for dental fillings (1907)
- Standardized dental operating procedures (1908)
- Modern dental implants (1937)
- The nylon toothbrush (1938)
- Water fluoridation (1945)
- Fluoride toothpaste (1950)
- High-speed air-driven handpiece (1957)
- Lasers approved for soft-tissue work (1960)
- The electric toothbrush (1960)
- Composite resin restorative material (1962)
- Commercial tooth whitening (1989)
- Esthetic dentistry - the use of dental skill and materials for purely aesthetic purposes (1990)
- Lasers approved to treat tooth decay (1997)
The future of modern dental care
As you can see by now, dental care and oral health have come a very long way in a relatively short time.
While many of the biggest innovations that have impacted modern dentistry in the last 100 years have been improvements on much older practices, these improvements have relieved tremendous suffering and generally made life better for billions of people around the world.What can we expect to see on the horizon of modern dental care?
Here are just a few examples of new and emerging techniques and tools that will continue the tradition of advancement in oral health and hygiene:
- The Diamond Probe - an advanced probe developed by Diamond General Development Corporation that is more comfortable for patients than traditional metal probes and also has the distinct advantage of measuring volatile sulfur compounds in the sulcus. These compounds are known to indicate areas of disease activity in the gum, and can be identified long before visual cues like redness, swelling, or bleeding of the gums.
- DentalView endoscope - a streamlined endoscope (camera used inside the body) specifically developed for periodontal use with a smaller handpiece and a display nearly 40x larger than previous models. This camera allows unprecedented real-time views for dentist and patient into areas of periodontal disease and treatment.
- Air-abrasion - As opposed to using a drill to treat small cavities, air-abrasion offers a more comfortable alternative that patients with anxiety about dental care find much easier to handle.
In all, the trend is clear: your teeth have never been in such good hands as they are today at your local dentist’s office.
If you’re not currently taking full advantage of the knowledge and technology available to help you care for your teeth and gums by visiting your dentist at least twice a year, it’s important to start.
Don’t let cost stand in the way, as many options exist to help make routine visits affordable, including dental discount plans and financing options. The routine dental visit at most offices will only take 30-45 minutes to complete and you will likely experience little or no discomfort.