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Most of us are familiar with the standard home dental care tools like toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and mouthwash. But it wasn’t always as easy or convenient to keep teeth in good condition. Here’s a few examples of how technology has had a major impact on dentistry. The history of toothpaste alone is fascinating!

From burnt eggshells to ‘aristocratic dental cream’

Until about 120 years ago, sugar was the main ingredient in toothpaste and while that alarming fact spurned Ontario dentists to create and sell their own healthy alternative, it was certainly a more palatable ingredient compared to what had been used to keep mouths clean in even earlier times. Ancient Egyptians used a powder of crushed rock salt, mint, dried iris flower and pepper. It was applied to the teeth and when mixed with saliva, created an abrasive and undoubtedly pungent toothpaste. The ancient Greeks and Romans also brushed with overly abrasive ingredients like crushed bones, oyster shells, burnt eggshells and the ash from ox hooves. Some tooth powders even used powdered bark and charcoal for flavour and to combat bad breath.

It wasn’t until 1850 that toothpaste started to resemble what we know and love today. Dr. Washington Sheffield, an American dental surgeon, invented Dr. Sheffield’s Crème Dentifrice, “the aristocratic dental cream.” It was packaged in a glass jar and claimed to “arrest decay, check infection and keep the oral cavity sweet and pure.” In 1892, the toothpaste was sold in collapsible tin tubes. Colgate began mass-manufacturing its first toothpaste in 1873, at first selling it in a glass jar like Dr. Sheffield’s before switching to the collapsible metal tube packaging. But because of the shortage in tin and lead during the Second World War, plastic toothpaste tubes were invented and are still used today.

Sugar was an ingredient in early toothpaste, which encouraged dentists to create their own versions. (CREDIT: WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON)

Ending the drudgery of insurance forms

As technology continued to develop in our increasingly modern society, so too did its use in the dental clinic. The creation of the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) in 1988 was a blessing for anyone familiar with the drudgery of form filling and paperwork sending. This network linked insurance carriers with dental offices via telephone lines and computers. The technology was implemented in dental offices across Ontario a couple of years later and, for the first time, dental clinics could submit patients’ insurance claims electronically. This was a welcome technological advancement for both patients and dentists alike, saving them both the time and expense of manually filing insurance claims.

Digital techniques minimize pain

It’s hard to accurately predict how technology will shape the future of dentistry, but if the present is any indication, it will mean greater efficiencies and less discomfort.

Long gone are the days of foot-cranked drills that would loudly and terrifyingly grind out cavities from patients’ teeth. Today, drills still exist but are starting to be replaced by highly accurate laser technology. Because less vibration, pressure and heat are created with a laser, there’s minimal physical pain for patients and they’re also spared the horror of listening to the sound of old-fashioned drills.

There have been many improvements in cutting pain out of dental treatments. Specialized sedation dentistry uses medication and other relaxation techniques for patients with health conditions or severe dental anxiety. Other methods of delivering local anesthesia as alternatives to needles are being developed to offer a less invasive freezing process for patients. There was a time when elevator music would be played in the dental clinic to soothe patients but it has become more common to see TV screens by the dentist’s chair to provide patients with a calming distraction during their treatment.

The increasing use of imaging software, computer-aided design programs and digital photography is also expected to become the industry norm to help dentists create crowns, tooth fillings and other prosthetic restorations. We’ve come a long way from the days of hand-carved dentures affixed with wooden teeth. Now, more dental offices in Ontario are offering patients CEREC (Chairside Economical Restoration of Esthetic Ceramics) technology. In this process, a dentist scans the area of a patient’s mouth that needs reconstruction, a digitally crafted replica image is created and a milling chamber then sculpts the tooth right there in the dentist’s office, eliminating the need to send the job to a lab. This means patients can get their smiles improved in less time.

This content was produced by the Ontario Dental Association. The Globe and Mail was not involved in its creation.
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