Early morning. I’m half awake, drowsy as I stumble into the bathroom at my parents’ place and as I am about to brush my teeth I look at my toothbrush reflected in the mirror and suddenly am jolted awake – the toothpaste is a greyish black. Oh, yeah, right. I remember now. Unlike the alabaster white colored toothpaste I use at home, this is the color of the toothpaste my parents use: charcoal toothpaste.
Yes, charcoal. Known for its purification, deodorizing and cleansing properties, true charcoal (참숯) has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries in Korea. It is a familiar ingredient, usually the natural charcoal of red pines, and there are various products available: cosmetics, soaps, deodorants, kitchenware, clothing and… toothpaste.
Korean toothpaste flavors are quite diverse. Oh, of course you have normal toothpaste flavors such as mint, fresh mint and such, but as health conscious living and “well-being” came into focus in the 80s, toothpastes with traditional ingredients and medicinal herbs have been quite popular, of which bamboo salt (죽염) is the most common.
Back in the olden days, Koreans cleaned their teeth with salt. After taking out food particles with toothpicks, they would take the salt with their fingers and rub the salt meticulously over their teeth and gargle with warm water afterwards. It is recorded that ladies of the court in the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897) would clean their teeth with a combination of bamboo salt mixed together with dried and crushed cherry blossoms, while higher nobility and royalty would use real gold specks mixed with specially made bamboo salt.
Bamboo salt is made by pouring unrefined natural sea salt into a 3 year bamboo cane and slowing baking it in a kiln with pine wood. By doing this, the salt is infused with the beneficial components of the bamboo, adding to its rich mineral quality. Because of these characteristics, bamboo salt is widely used in cuisine, cosmetics, and medicine. It is also effective in treating gum disease, making it a familiar ingredient in toothpaste.
Toothpaste is called “tooth medicine” (치약) in Korean – which dentists are quick to point out isn’t accurate – nevertheless, toothpaste was introduced to Korea during the 1950s with the first Korean toothpaste to be manufactured being “Lucky Toothpaste” by the company Lucky (which is now LG Household & Healthcare). Post-war Korea was heavily focused on health and hygiene so toothpaste, that is “tooth medicine”, was marketed accordingly. Flavors were basic and not the focal point. Nowadays, the story is different. Function is a given, so flavors play a much larger role in the product.
Such as pine salt. Although not as common as bamboo salt, it is also quite popular as it has the keen and fresh taste of pine. Pine salt is made by baking unrefined natural sea salt and then infusing it into a bath of pine needle extract. This combines the two quite effectively and is then used as an ingredient for many products. Recently launched pine salt toothpastes are organic, making them a favorite with mothers, and have added ingredients for slightly different flavors.
One of the latest interesting flavors to be added to the Korean toothpaste roster is tiger herb (호랑이풀), which is a cute way of saying Centella asiatica, a culinary and medicinal herb. It is called tiger herb because supposedly after a rigorous fight, the tiger would go roll in a patch of these herbs to heal its wounds. Calling it tiger herb is also marketing genius, as it appeals to the Korean psyche and our affinity for tigers. The herbal flavor is usually combined with a stronger ingredient, such as bamboo salt, and is known to be good for the gums and work well against cavities.
If you can’t decide on one ingredient, go for a bundle! Cheongeuncha (청은차) is a type of puer tea and when combined with extract of green ginkgo, the blend becomes ideal as an ingredient for toothpaste. Great anti-bacterial characteristics counter bad breath, the paste is tea-like fragrant, and ginkgo is known to be extremely good for the gums. There is a variety of these toothpastes (as there are many selections of tea) from mild to strong, so you have a good selection to choose from.
It would be impossible to list all the available flavors on the market, but this is a general idea of some flavors you wouldn’t find quite easily elsewhere. There are also high-end toothpastes laced with traditional medicinal herbs of which the elderly are quite fond, and these can be seen presented in gift sets during holiday season.
Most of the toothpastes mentioned above are produced by major companies dealing with oral health and hygiene products:
*Product images are from the official sites unless noted otherwise.