Ohaguro-Teeth Blackening Tradition

historic photo of blackened teeth

One of the more unique tooth traditions in the history of the world comes from Asia, where members of tribes in Japan, Vietnam, and other parts of Southeast Asia partake in the ritual of blackening their teeth. Called Ohaguru, it is a custom of dyeing the teeth black and it has been around since prehistoric times. Here’s a deeper look at this practice.

Ohaguro means simply to blacken the teeth. It’s an old custom that was very popular centuries ago among most married Japanese women, members of the aristocratic class, and samurai. It was considered a status symbol to have blackened teeth. The traditional method used was to soak iron fillings in tea or sake. The liquid turns black when the iron oxidates and practitioners would then add spices like cinnamon, cloves, and anise to reduce the harsh taste of the dye. In other parts of Asia, people used coconut husk to obtain the dark dye. When burned, it forms a black sticky char that is combined with nail filings and applied to the teeth. The Vietnamese used red sticklac, a resin that comes from the secretions of a tiny insect that sucks the sap of a tree.

In 1870, the Japanese government outlawed the practice of ohaguru, but it can still be seen in theatrical plays and movies. These days, the actors use ink and tooth wax to achieve the look. The practice can still be found in other areas of Southeast Asia among traditional tribes.

Strange as this practice may sound, it proved to be somewhat useful in tooth decay. Working very much like modern dental sealants, the material used in Vietnam and Laos to stain teeth was found to inhibit the growth of s. mutans, the bacteria that produce acids that cause tooth decay.

While styles and customs often change, strong, healthy teeth will always be in style. If you’re not particularly interested in blackening your teeth to prevent cavities, you can still brush and floss regularly, and if you or your child is especially prone to cavities, talk to your dentist about dental sealants (that aren’t black).