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Originally published Monday, November 15, 2010 at 7:06 PM

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A history of tooth-whitening

In 3000 B.C., people used something called chew sticks.

The Providence Journal

Having sparkling teeth by way of a whitening strip, or a custom bleaching tray, might seem like a 21st-century phenomenon. In reality, the art of teeth-whitening is a technique that has been around in some form for centuries.

The history of teeth-whitening, or cleaning teeth, can be traced back to ancient times. In 3000 B.C., people didn't brush teeth with a brush, but they did use something called chew sticks. These were small twigs that a person chewed, which scraped off the particles on the teeth.

Fast forward to the 20th century.

Popular bleaching methods — think trays with peroxide — officially started sometime in the late 1980s. Dentists happened to stumble upon the technique quite by accident a couple decades earlier, according Jean Arthur, a restorative and cosmetic dentist in Providence, R.I. For years, peroxide had been used as an oral antiseptic gel to treat the gums; dentists tried different ways to keep the gel on the gums longer. It became quickly apparent that a side effect of that treatment was that it whitened the teeth.

Soon, the mass marketing of tooth-whitening products ensued.

Results from these treatments are perfect for our culture of "instant gratification,"with many techniques producing a difference in two weeks.

Tooth-enamel discoloration is caused by a variety of things. They include aging, superficial stains from drinking coffee, cola and wine, smoking, or from taking medications such as tetracycline, diseases and even genetics.

Arthur recommends that if you have superficial stains, you will have a brighter smile by removing those stains with a regular teeth cleaning from your dental hygienist. If you want your teeth to be even brighter, you need to pursue other methods. It all depends on what you want to achieve.

A brief history:

— The practice of teeth-whitening began around 4,000 years ago with the ancient Egyptians, who created a whitening paste using ground pumice stone mixed in wine vinegar. White teeth were a mark of beauty and a sign of wealth.

— Ancient Romans whitened their teeth using urine (you read that correctly). The ammonia in the urine was the bleaching agent.

— During the 17th century, people relied on their barbers for the care of hair and teeth. The barber would file down the teeth and apply an acid that would whiten them. While the practice made teeth whiter, it eroded tooth enamel and led to decay.

— The effects of fluoride were discovered in the early 19th century, when dentists realized that patients exposed to the chemical in food and water had cavity-free teeth. However, it was also discovered that too much fluoride can stain teeth.

Reach Lisa Vernon-Sparks at lsparks@projo.com.

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