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September 19th, 2019

Why Do Pirates Have Such Bad Teeth?

Category: dental health

a pirates toothy smile hagen dental blog


Looting, stealing, partying, and searching for unfound treasure….that’s all in a “day in the life” of a Pirate!

It’s no wonder, then, that oral hygiene came at the bottom of the list for Pirates. And, if you’ve seen any movie that features Pirates, you’ve likely noticed the depiction of their teeth as yellow, rotting, or altogether missing—which isn’t too far from the truth…

In honor of “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” we thought we’d take a closer look at the truth behind Pirate’s personal hygiene.

Stepping Back: A Closer Look at Pirates

When we talk about pirates, we’re referring to people who would rob or attack others on boat—in most cases. That violence would happen by other ship-borne attackers looking for money, jewelry, or anything they could get their hands on—including so-called “treasure”!

Many people are familiar with Pirates from movies, especially thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Usually, these movies do an accurate job of capturing how this kind of violence and crime would occur. With that said, some of them rely on a few stereotype portrayals of how Pirates talked and dressed, such as peglegs, parrots, and treasure maps…

The Golden Age of Piracy

The earliest documented piracy dates back to 14th century, and many acts of piracy happened during the 15th century (1).  The classic era of piracy that many know about (and is covered most often in books and movies) occurred in the Caribbean. That lasted from around 1650 until the mid-1720s.

In part, that’s because during that time, France, England and the United Provinces were all developing empires and trade by sea was common. In other words, the economy of that time depended on resources being moved via ship. Since money and resources were traveling this way, it provided and opportunity for pirates to attempt to attack those ships in order to steal those very resources (2).

A Pirate’s Life 

Historians say that often, Pirates were people who came from poverty and that they—early on in life—found this was a way to survive and make a living. It’s also believed that others were captured during raids or battles and forced to work on the pirates’ ship as a result.

With a livelihood based on stealing and a life that wasn’t fancy or decadent by any means, what did oral health even look like for Pirates?

Here are 4 things that might have contributed to poor oral health for Pirates:

1. Lack of consistent hydration with water.

One of the best things about water is how it natural cleanses our mouth. Since our bodies are 60 percent water, it also keeps our body working properly and helps our body deliver nutrients in the best way possible.

Yes, Pirates likely had the ability to fill up with tons of water barrels, but at times, the water was likely limited, not high quality, or it wasn’t helping to improve their overall health and oral health.

Without that kind of access to clean water we have today (not to mention it certainly was not fluorinated), Pirates’ health ultimately suffered.

pirates and their oral health

2. Diet and alcohol consumption.

Food for Pirates likely included salted meat, sea biscuits (a hard bread meant to last long periods of time), or even bone soup, as a few examples. If they ate bread that ended up “stuck” on their teeth for long periods of time, that would have been a breeding ground for bacteria in their mouth, resulting major, fast-forming dental decay.

Alcohol consumption is also not good for teeth, and if they smoked—which it is believed they did—it would have also contributed to oral health decay and other issues.

3. A major deficiency in vitamin C.

Scurvy is a disease that results from a major lack of Vitamin C. When it happens, people experience decreased red blood cells, gum disease, changes to their hair, and bleeding from the skin.

This deficiency in vitamin C, which is common for people who live at sea, would have only worsened those issues, and could have heavily contributed to tooth loss. It’s believed to have been very common for sailors during this time period, especially since foods that combat scurvy—

lemons, limes, broccoli, chili peppers, guava, kiwifruit, oranges, strawberries, etc.—couldn’t be help on ships for long periods of time.

4. Lack of modern knowledge.

If a tooth hurt back then, Pirates probably…well, pulled it. Arrrr!

Today we use modern toothbrushes and floss because we know the impact good oral health habits can have on our teeth, especially when those habits compound over time. Pirates back then may have had chewing sticks to help remove plaque, but they certainly did not regularly brush their teeth or floss. And, just as you may have guessed, they had no access to professional dental cleaning at that time! Dentistry as we know it has come a long way!

international talk like a pirate day hagen dds

Have Some Fun This International ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’

Ultimately, it’s clear that Pirates didn’t have the knowledge or the ability to take care of their teeth as we do today…Luckily, today we know the benefits of properly taking care of our teeth and we’re grateful we have the ability to do so. (And, we’re able to access professional dentistry to help us receive the best oral health care possible in a comfortable, safe environment.)

Its’ been said that on “Talk Like a Pirate Day” this month, you’re encouraged to use phrases like “Ahoy, Mates!”, “Ahoy, Matey” or even, “Ahoy, me hearties!” Those are just a few common phrases that are said to have been used back in the Golden Age of Piracy, even though the actual use might have been slightly different. Whether or not you end up using those phrases or other ones is up to you (3)!


  2. Nigel Cawthorne (2005), Pirates: An Illustrated History, Arturus Publishing Ltd., 2005, p. 65.

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