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An Iconic Antiseptic Mouthwash

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#62 Science in History

15th May 1923

Today In 1923, Listerine was registered as a trademark.

The iconic mouthwash known as Listerine is a household name and a staple in oral care routines worldwide. Listerine owes its name to Dr. Joseph Lawrence, a prominent American physician and scientist. Dr. Lawrence developed Listerine as an antiseptic surgical disinfectant - inspired by the work of Sir Joseph Lister, who championed the use of antiseptics to prevent infections during surgical procedures. Lawrence licensed his formula to pharmacist Jordan Wheat Lambert who set up ‘The Lambert Pharmacal Company’ to market Lawrence's brainchild.

Lawrence’s original formulation included eucalyptol, menthol, thymol, and methyl salicylate. These oils contributed to its antiseptic and germ-killing properties. It was introduced in the 1870s as a product called "Lister's Antiseptic." However, due to limited success in the surgical field, the amber-brown solution’s use expanded to other applications such as a floor cleaner and, surprisingly, as a cure for gonorrhoea! Recognizing the product's potential to combat oral bacteria and bad breath, Listerine was rebranded as an antiseptic mouthwash.

The marketing of Listerine as a mouthwash faced initial challenges since bad breath (halitosis) was a sensitive topic in ‘polite society’. Lambert’s company devised novel fear-based advertising campaigns. These ads depicted social rejection due to bad breath, emphasizing Listerine as the solution. This approach proved highly effective and contributed to Listerine's rise in popularity. Listerine's versatility led to various ‘off label’ uses - a disinfectant for cuts, an aftershave, a treatment for dandruff, and even as a mosquito repellent. Listerine gained further recognition through endorsements and product placements in popular culture. It was featured in movies, TV shows, and even literature, cementing its status as an iconic brand. The term "Listerine smile" was coined to describe a wide, confident smile, reflecting the product's association with oral hygiene and fresh breath.

The product revolutionized the field of oral care with its unique formulation and antiseptic properties becoming a non-prescription product from 1914. What did people do before Listerine?

Here are some oral hygiene practices and products that were used before Listerine:

Mouthwashes and Rinses: Different types of mouthwashes and rinses have been used throughout history for oral hygiene. These included herbal concoctions, homemade solutions, and commercially available products that often contained ingredients like alcohol, herbs, and aromatic oils.

Chewing Sticks: In many cultures, the use of chewing sticks was prevalent for cleaning teeth and freshening breath. People would chew on twigs or branches with natural antiseptic properties, such as neem, miswak, or other medicinal plants. Chewing sticks helped mechanically remove plaque and debris from teeth.

Tooth Powders and Pastes: Tooth powders made from abrasive substances like crushed shells, chalk, or charcoal were used to scrub the teeth. They were applied using a finger or toothbrush. Later, toothpaste-like formulations containing ingredients such as powdered orris root, baking soda, and salt were introduced.

Tongue Scrapers: Tongue scrapers have been used for centuries to remove debris and bacteria from the tongue's surface, promoting fresher breath. They were typically made from metal or other materials and used to gently scrape the tongue's surface.

Home Remedies: Various home remedies were used for oral hygiene, including rinsing with saltwater, hydrogen peroxide, or vinegar solutions. These remedies were often believed to have antimicrobial properties and were used to promote oral cleanliness.

The effectiveness and scientific basis of these products varies but Listerine, with its specific formulation and focus on antiseptic properties, provided a standardized and commercially available product that was specifically developed for oral care. After over 100 years, Listerine is still a major brand.


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