When reviewing your toothpaste flavor options, what do you typically see? A whole lot of mint. Cool mint, fresh mint, clean mint, spearmint, or just plain mint – it’s mostly mint! Does the industry simply lack creativity? Manufacturers have in fact tried to differentiate their products with tasty alternatives like citrus, watermelon, fennel, and even bacon. But aside from some kid-friendly flavors like bubblegum and strawberry, non-minty toothpastes remain a fringe item. If it’s not out-of-the-flavor-box thinking that’s behind the mint monopoly, then what is?
To understand how we got to the dominant taste of our paste, we have to take a (brief!) look at toothpaste history.
Toothpaste dates back to about 5000 BC, with the Egyptians getting credit for the first version of the stuff. While the contents of early forms varied, they often contained abrasive materials such as pumice, burnt eggshells, and ashes from the hooves of oxen (sounds scrub-tastic, right?). People in ancient Greece and Rome, meanwhile, used crushed oyster shells and bones.
Thousands of years later the oldest-known "recipe" for toothpaste surfaced in Egypt and included mint, pepper, dried iris flowers, and rock salt. Centuries later, researchers replicated this formula and tested it out, revealing the results at a gathering of dental professionals in Vienna in 2003. Their conclusion? While fairly harsh (we’re talking bleeding gums), it was remarkably effective, and likely better than more modern variants of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
While the corrosive concoction cooked up by the Egyptians marks the first documented use of mint in toothpaste, it didn’t really establish its place as the dentifrice default until the early 1900s. It was then that a new toothpaste called Pepsodent hit the market, backed by a brilliant ad campaign that succeeded in positioning tooth brushing as a very necessary and rewarding habit. How? In short, by using the power of psychology to associate the feeling of a fresh, minty mouth with clean teeth. The creative mind behind that campaign, a successful ad man by the name of Claude C. Hopkins, knew that habitual behaviors are made up of three components: a cue that triggers the behavior, the behavior itself, and the reward. Hopkins took a long-standing cue—a filmy-feeling mouth—offered a solution—this new minty, fresh-feeling toothpaste—and suggested a reward—a prettier smile.
While the mint itself did nothing in terms of the actual efficacy of the Pepsodent formula, it cemented mint’s association with a clean mouth because of its cool, refreshing feeling. Not long after, other manufacturers caught on and incorporated mint as their go-to flavor…and mouths everywhere have been tingling ever since.