Freshly Minted: How mint became the default flavor of dental hygiene.
Once, and only once, I saw a stranger behaving curiously in the toothpaste aisle. He was standing with his arms crossed and brow furrowed; his eyes seemed to scan everything from the top shelf to bottom, then back to the top again. I waited some time for him to move before I realized that he was doing the same thing I had come to do: Read the labels and frown. Cool Mint, Strong Mint, Radiant Mint, Fresh Mint, Clean Mint, Vanilla Mint, Spearmint, Cinnamint, Now With Intense Mint Flavor: There were no options without mint.
I can’t speak for the stranger, but my disappointment with this stunning variety was dermatological. In my early 20s I was diagnosed with a skin condition that was aggravated by among other things, mint oil. At the time, I was a serious mint user: I always had a pack of gum in my bag and thought Altoids were a required final course after every meal. I replaced the breath mints with xylitol-based fruit gums and the old-fashioned remedy of fresh fruit after a meal, but mintless toothpaste is a specialty item, difficult to find: for most toothpastes, mint is an essential feature, not an optional flavor.
But in the history of dental hygiene, the ubiquity of mint is a relatively recent phenomenon. Humankind has devised itself breath fresheners and dental abrasives throughout recorded time, but these varied greatly among cultures, depending mostly on what materials were available. Crushed shells, chalk or brick dust, and even powdered bone could serve to scrub teeth and clean the gums until the invention of toothpaste in the late 19th century. To sweeten the breath, medieval Europeans could crush herbs into their tooth scrub or vinegar mouthwash; mint was sometimes used for this purpose, but so were rosemary, parsley, and sage. Other cultures chewed aromatic seeds — fennel seeds, cardamom, star anise — to abrade and sweeten the mouth; some of these fragrant seeds still appear in the bowls of colorful mukhwas you see at Indian restaurants.