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The Crazy (and Disgusting) History of Mouthwash

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For as long as humans have been using tools, we’ve been cleaning our teeth! From toothbrushes made out of sticks, to dental floss made out of horse hair, we have always been mindful of our oral health. But what about mouthwash? When did we start swishing liquid around hoping for cleaner mouths?

Ancient Roman Mouthwash

There are references to mouthwash in Chinese, Greek, Egyptian and Roman literature, but the most well recorded early instances of humanity using mouthwash comes from ancient Rome, in A.D. 1. The Romans used to buy bottles of Portuguese urine and use that as a rinse. GROSS! Importing bottled urine became so popular that the emperor Nero taxed the trade. The ammonia in urine was thought to disinfect mouths and whiten teeth, and urine remained a popular mouthwash ingredient until the 18th century.

Mouthwash Oddities

People have used some strange combinations – besides urine – as mouthwash. Tortoise blood was once thought to disinfect mouths and clean teeth, and mixtures of berries, mint leaves and vinegar or wine has also been used as mouthwash. In the 12th century, Saint Hildegard von Bingen advocated that swishing pure, cold water could remove plaque and tartar.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Known as the “father of modern microbiology,” Anton van Leeuwenhoek is credited for discovering oral bacteria in the 18th century. Upon his discovery, he experimented with a variety of solutions that could kill the bacteria. Leeuwenhoek discovered that he could immobilize and kill bacteria with by dousing them in ammonia and / or alcohol. It is around this time that alcohol became the most popular ingredient used in mouthwash – and it is still used today!


In 1865, English doctor Joseph Lister became the first surgeon to perform an operation in a chamber that had been sterilized with antiseptic – a practice that was very uncommon. After Lister’s practice was discovered to reduce mortality rates, it became a more widespread practice.

Inspired by Dr. Lister, Robert Wood Johnson and Dr. Joseph Lawrence modernized surgical sterilization practices and established the iconic company Johnson & Johnson. In 1879, Dr. Lawrence created Listerine – a mouthwash used for cleaning mouths and sterilizing surgical wounds.

By 1895, Listerine was sold to Lambert Pharmaceutical Co. and dentists began to observe the cleaning power of the mouthwash. In 1914, Listerine became the first prescription mouthwash to be sold over the counter in the United States.

Mouthwash Today

Today, you can buy mouthwash for gum health, to help with plaque buildup and to prevent gingivitis. There’s mouthwash for just about every oral ailment that you can have, but before you buy any mouthwash, make sure to find a mouthwash with the ADA seal. The American Dental Association – known as the ADA – tests oral products for effectiveness and safety. To attain the ADA seal of approval, a product must prove to be safe and effective. That’s why we suggest that you look for products with the ADA seal of approval. Mouthwash with the ADA seal has been rigorously tested and approved by a legitimate association that advocates for oral health.

Ask Us!

If you would like more information about the types of mouthwash that are safe and effective for your kids, then schedule a visit to our office! We will talk with you and your child about the best mouthwash for their overall mouth health. But, it’s important to remember that mouthwash is intended to be used in addition to a regular routine of brushing and flossing. Mouthwash does not replace brushing and flossing. The best way to get your kids a healthy smile is by brushing and flossing twice per day for 2 minutes at a time.

13 Responses to “The Crazy (and Disgusting) History of Mouthwash”

  1. John Nieder

    Will ammonia damage tooth enamel?


  2. Jane Flores

    OMG! They used urine as mouthwash? That’s so gross. Anyways, I’m happy that we live in modern times that we don’t need to wash our mouths using odd liquids. Right now, as soon as my baby started teething, I already brought her to a dentist in Rome which is at to make sure her oral health is well-taken care of.


  3. Gertrude Kirkman

    I pissed in my pants


  4. Alejandro Lopez

    Excellent post, informing about teeth and tips and properties. Dental health is very important even if it doesn’t seem like it to us. You have to take care of them with all the products you have. Congratulations from my company (mobiliario hostelería) for the posts.


  5. Abirra Nartel

    Lucky enough we are living in a modern world full of innovative inventions. Parents nowadays prioritize oral health care by regular dental visits for consultation and cleaning. We are grateful that our kids’ dentist at educates them on proper hygiene for their dental needs.


  6. Jen

    Listerine does not sterilize. It disinfects…


  7. Don Davies

    I enjoyed reading this and I hope I can get to discuss some of these when the kids visit their dentist over at! I really think that mouthwash is a vital part of oral and dental care specially for kids!


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  9. Marianna Geoffrey

    Good thing we don’t do that anymore. Also, bringing your child to a dentist is something that’s not very easy to do considering that they have anxiety and fears of the treatments, the experience and even the tools that are used. Children are hardly cooperative during their appointments which is why they need a specialist like children’s dental center rome ga who can be extremely patient with them.


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  12. Nejat

    Why Portuguese urine ?


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