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10 Tooth-Cleaning Devices & Products of Yesteryear

Here at mental_floss, as the name suggests, we take our dental hygiene seriously. Accordingly, we felt it would be only fitting and proper to take a closer look at the products and devices folks have used throughout the centuries to fight plaque, tartar, oral fungi and other miscellaneous cavity creeps.

1. Miswak Cleaning Stick

4 out of 5 dentists recommend sugarless gum to patients who chew gum, you say? Big deal! The miswak was recommended by Mohammad himself. In existence for thousands of years and still used to this day, the miswak comes from the twigs of the Salvadora persica (a.k.a. the Arak or Peelu tree). The fibrous stems aren’t just ideal for removing detritus, either—they're also a natural source of fluoride. A 2003 study on miswak vs. toothbrush use concludes that (when users are given proper instruction), chewing sticks are "more effective than toothbrushing for reducing plaque and gingivitis."

2. Early Toothbrushes

Thanks to international trade, by the late 1700s Europeans were consuming greater quantities of sugar than ever before, and tooth decay was consequently on the upswing. The common tooth cleaning practice at the time—rubbing a rag with soot and salt on the teeth—wasn’t doing the trick, apparently. Toothbrushes existed but were considered exotic, so they weren’t widely available. In stepped businessman William Addis, who reckoned the personal brush he used might have mass appeal and rolled the dice on manufacturing them. It was a good gamble: his brushes were an instant smash. Before long it was unfashionable not to use one—and fancy, bone-handled models of the sort shown here began to appear in droves.

3. Bejewelled Toothpicks

Back in the 1800s, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see the cream of fashionable society whipping out these silver or gold plated picks after a fine supper and going full tilt at their incisors. The trend persisted through the 1950s, and it wasn't unusual to find these sterling picks monogrammed or branded with the family crest. Takeaway: don’t be fooled by those boxes of sticks that say “Fancy Toothpicks.”

4. Dental File

From the Middle Ages through the early 1800s, barbers often doubled as dental surgeons. Because—then as now—pearly whites were considered desirable, dental surgeons were often engaged not only to perform extractions, but to whiten teeth. Their technique? Filing holes between the patient’s teeth, then coating their choppers with corrosive nitric acid. And sure enough, this process whitened people’s teeth. Unfortunately it also dissolved the enamel and eventually led to decay and worse.

5. Tongue Scrapers

Tongue cleaning has been practiced since ancient times in India and Russia. And those folks knew what they were about, since decaying bacteria and fungi on the tongue are related to many common oral care and general health problems (not to mention halitosis). Ivory and silver scrapers are just a few of the models used by the hygienically scrupulous in the 1800s, but these days you can (and should) pick up a plastic one at the nearest pharmacy.

6. Early Dental Floss

Even though folks had been using strings and strands of all sorts to dig gunk from between their teeth for centuries, the official invention of floss is generally credited to New Orleans dentist Levi Spear Parmly, who introduced his silk version in 1815. 73 years later, Johnson & Johnson received the first patent for dental floss, and the time-honored tradition of dental hygienists scolding their patients for not flossing often enough was born.

7. Rubber Disk Toothbrush

Here’s a 1931 design that never caught on, despite its very scientific assertion that “the rubber itself produce[d] a polish when used with a dentrifice [i.e., toothpaste or tooth powder]”. Perhaps the problem lay in the shape, or maybe the rubber toothbrush was just too weird compared to the brushes we'd all grown accustomed to by the '30s. At any rate, this was a huge flop.

8. Long-Handled Tongue Brush

Described as having “an unusually long handle, curved to fit the mouth," this Depression-era brush allowed its user to “reach any part of the tongue which may need cleaning,” thus saving exhausted tongue-brushers from the laborious task of raising their arms a few more inches.

9. Hands-Free Motorized Toothbrush

Wowza! This motor-propelled toothbrush allowed its busy owner to multitask, taking care of his choppers by means of a “vibrating arm," and thus leaving him free to shave, trim his nails or think really hard about whether shaving while a vibrating arm is scrubbing at his teeth is really a good idea. The design appeared and disappeared in 1937.

10. Bourbon & Scotch Flavored Toothpaste

Invented in 1954 by Don Poynter—the same man who brought us crossword-puzzle toilet tissue, by the way—these novelty pastes contained real alcohol. Thanks to a nice spread in Life magazine, they became a huge (but short-lived) seller.

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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