What’s the Technique?
People have blackened their teeth with a huge variety of fruits, nuts, leaves, saps, woods, roots, metals, clays, minerals – really, so many things will make your teeth black that I’m now surprised that we don’t all have shiny dark smiles. In Southeast Asia, people did a daily touch-up with soot collected from the oily smoke of coconut shells burnt on a piece of iron. In Japan, people applied a solution of tea powder mixed with iron filings dissolved in vinegar every few days. I’m pretty sure that it’s the iron filings in that mixture that had the real blackening effect, but don’t underestimate tea. After I bumped my tea habit up to two cups a day, my dentist horrifiedly asked me if I had started smoking. Nope, just tea and red wine and, from what I diagnosed from his expression, teeth-brushing skills on par with one of those trained chimps who perform pretend beauty regimes at the circus. On his recommendation, I got an electric toothbrush, and now brushing my teeth is at least a lot more complicated, so that’s a plus, right?
But don’t think that you have to be a chemist or a botanist or even a committed tea-drinker if you want to experiment with blackening your very own teeth. Any part of the very common houseplant known as the Pothos Vine (Epipremnum pinnatum (L.) Engl. (Araceae) if you’re being all technical) will blacken teeth when chewed. Bonus: chewing it was described by the tribes that used it for teeth blacking as having a mild narcotic effect, imparting a “soothing, sedative feeling.” And it’s tolerant of low light and erratic watering – just don’t tell the DEA! If you can’t grow Pothos Vine because of a bad black thumb (pun intended), you can do like the Javanese did and chew pomegranate rind while sipping coconut water from a cup with a chunk of iron in it. DIY option: Just dump some nails in your Vita Coco Coconut Water and you’ll be good to go.
Of Course, You Might Have to Suffer for Beauty.
As someone who used Crest WhiteStrips just last week, I can attest that beauty is painful. I also ripped those suckers off halfway through the recommended time allotment, because I couldn’t handle the chemical taste. However, an hour of feeling like I was licking a factory floor is nothing compared to the process undergone by those who wanted to blacken their teeth permanently back in the day. In Vietnam, the process took days. First, girls thoroughly cleaned their teeth with powdered coal mixed with salt. Then they eroded the enamel over several days, creating pits in their teeth so that the dye would adhere better, by holding pieces of lemon in their mouths and drinking rice wine mixed with lemon juice. This generally caused soreness and swelling of the lips, tongue, and gums. Then the girls went through three stages of dying – a first application of shellac and lemon juice, applied to a cloth and left on the teeth overnight over several days, turned their teeth dark red; then a solution made of iron or copper was applied to react with the shellac and turn it black; and finally, extra shine was given with soot from burnt coconut shells. The girls weren’t allowed to eat solid or hot food at any point during the process, and anything they could eat had to be gulped down quickly so it wouldn’t interfere with the dyes. At least they were better off than the girls of the Chamoru people of Micronesia, who spent up to two weeks only drinking small amounts of liquids through a funnel in order not to interfere with the application of tooth blackener.
Oh, and the shellac the Vietnamese used? It’s made from the secretions of an aphid-like insect that feeds on sap. I’m telling you, teeth blackening is all about secretions. And I imagine that it was fairly expensive, too, since rounding up enough tiny insects to extract enough secretion would take a fair amount of effort. It was probably like the traditional equivalent of Crème de la Mer. Except that applying that stuff only hurts your wallet, not your entire face/jaw/teeth/hungry stomach/etc. I can’t even think of any beauty treatment I’ve had that even approaches the level of potential pain and suffering of teeth-dying, but then again, I haven’t even ever dyed my hair (too much trouble) and made the executive decision at age 12 to never get my ears pierced (it hurts!), so I guess I’m not the expert on suffering for beauty’s sake.