Miswak -- the natural toothbrush

Westerners may be surprised by the sight of Saudi executives, high-ranking businessmen and university professors chewing publicly on a tan-coloured stick, about 15-20cm long and roughly the thickness of the little finger. Public care of one's teeth is perfectly acceptable in Saudi Arabia, and is done with the miswak (pictured), a natural toothbrush-cum-toothpaste. This multi-purpose stick cleans the mouth, whitens the teeth and sweetens the breath, and is widely used throughout the Arab world.

Muslims use it on the recommendation of the Prophet Mohammed, who used it during fasting and also advised its use as a breath freshener before prayer. By contrast with the conventional plastic toothbrush, the miswak can be used any time, anywhere. It completely dispenses with the need for toothpaste squeezing, vigorous brushing, foaming at the mouth or spitting.

The best source of the miswak is the root of the arak tree (salvadora persica), more commonly known as the 'toothbrush tree'. The arak grows in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Southern Egypt, Chad and Eastern parts of India. In other parts of the Muslim world where the arak tree is not found, other trees are used for the same purpose. Strips of bark are used in Morocco and the nim tree in India.

Use of the miswak appears to be totally confined to men, for no clear reason, and it seems more popular with the older generation than the younger. Many young Saudis combine modern and traditional methods, by brushing with a plastic toothbrush in the morning and carrying a miswak with them to work or college, in order to freshen their breath as the day progresses, especially before praying.

Dental research has discovered interesting information about the miswak. Chemical analysis revealed that it contains a total of 19 natural substances which are beneficial to dental health. Its natural antiseptics have a bactericidal action, killing harmful micro-organisms in the mouth, the tannic acid it contains has astringent qualities which protect the gums from disease, and its aromatic oils increase salivation. Because of its built-in antiseptics, the miswak needs no cleaning, and because its bristles are parallel to the handle rather than perpendicular, it can reach more easily between the teeth, where a conventional toothbrush often misses.

The large supermarkets and modern pharmacies in Saudia Arabia's cities do not sell the miswak. To buy one, you need to seek out the street vendors in the souqs or in the front of mosques. After purchase, the miswak should be soaked in water for a few hours. This softens the natural fibres, which helps them to separate when the top quarter-inch of bark is pared away with a sharp knife. Chewing the bristles for another minute or so will help to separate them further. The teeth can then be cleaned by drawing the miswak from the edge of the gums up or down to the cutting edge of the teeth. The miswak has a taste which has been described as "pleasantly bitter".


I have recently been made aware that "Miswak" is avaibale in vacum packed bags. Also that it may cause a bacterial infection if left in the mouth all day long.

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