Everyone wants to enjoy the benefits of tip-top oral hygiene: a pearly white smile, fresh-smelling breath, and healthy pink gums. Making sure your mouth stays healthy is a major reason for visiting the dentist — and there’s nothing like that squeaky-clean feeling you get all around your mouth after you’ve had a routine checkup and a professional cleaning! Hopefully, you see your dentist twice a year; but in between visits, it’s up to you to maintain a healthy mouth.
To help you achieve that goal, we’ve prepared a list of ten things you can do at home. These range from simple everyday routines (like using the right toothbrush) to changes that promote a healthier lifestyle — quitting smoking, for example. Taken together over the course of a lifetime, these practices can help everyone improve their oral health, and get all the benefits that come with it: a great-looking smile and a healthier body.
1) Do use the right toothbrush
That means a soft-bristled multi-tufted toothbrush, with a head that’s small enough to get comfortably all around your mouth, and a handle that’s easy to grip. If you have trouble holding a regular brush (due to arthritis, for example), you might want to consider getting a good-quality power toothbrush. And don’t forget to change your brush when the bristles start to get too soft or worn — about every three months, on average. Ask your dentist or hygienist to demonstrate exactly how to use your toothbrush and any other hygiene aids, so that you know you’re using them effectively to remove biofilm (bacterial plaque) and not doing any damage in the process.
2) Don’t brush too hard or too often (more than twice a day)
If brushing twice a day is good, then three times a day is better… right? Wrong! Brushing too often — or too hard — can cause gum recession, and damage the root surfaces of the teeth by abrading them. Exposed roots may be quite sensitive and at greater risk for decay. These surfaces also are not covered by the super-hard enamel that protects the crowns of your teeth (the part seen above the gum line), and therefore they wear quicker. It doesn’t take a lot of elbow grease to remove trapped food particles and bacterial plaque — a gentler and more sustained effort (brushing moderately for about two minutes, morning and night) is preferred. If your mouth needs a little freshening up in between, try eating something fibrous like apples, carrots or celery.
3) Do floss at least once a day
It’s been said many times, many ways… and it’s still true. Flossing is the best way to remove plaque in places where your brush just can’t reach: in between the teeth. Plaque that isn’t removed leads to tooth decay and gum disease. So you can see where this is going. If you need a refresher in flossing techniques, just ask your dentist — but don’t neglect this important part of your oral hygiene routine. You’re only 50% done if you just brush! And toothpicks, while helpful, don’t do the job that floss does.
4) Don’t snack on sugary foods — and don’t snack between meals
According to the National Institutes of Health, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of both children and adults — even though it’s almost entirely preventable. Sugary foods in the diet are the major contributor to the problem. Sugars are consumed by oral bacteria, which then release acids that attack the teeth, causing tooth decay (cavities). The less sugar you consume, the better for your teeth. If you must have sugary treats, restrict them to mealtimes; this gives the saliva a chance to neutralize and buffer the acids.
5) Do the tongue test to check cleanliness of teeth
Even after brushing, how do you know whether you’ve cleaned your teeth effectively? You could chew a special “disclosing tablet” with a harmless dye that shows any areas of bacterial plaque you have missed — or you could try another simple method: Run your tongue all over the surfaces of your teeth, front and back. If they feel nice and smooth — especially down at the gum line — chances are you’ve done a good brushing job. If you’re not sure, use the disclosing tablets to see what areas you are missing.
6) Do inform your dentist if you notice bleeding gums or lumps, bumps, ulcers
Many times, changes in the environment of your mouth are harmless — but some could be early warnings of disease. Be sure to let your dentist know when you notice anything unusual: bleeding, sensitivity, pain, discoloration, a sore or a lump, or any other signs or symptoms that are not normal. He or she will examine the area for signs of disease, and let you know if it needs treatment. That’s one more reason why regular dental checkups are so important for your oral health.
7) Don’t start bad oral health habits
Some of these you already know: using any tobacco products, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, and chewing on pencils or fingernails — all have negative consequences for your oral health. Other bad habits are less well-known. For example, getting an oral piercing increases the chance for tooth chipping and gum problems. A clenching or grinding habit can cause damage to your teeth, jaw joints and muscles, especially during sleep when you are unaware of it. And playing sports without a mouthguard multiplies your chances for dental injury. Ask your dentist for advice on curbing habits that are harmful to your oral — and general — health.
8) Do use fluoride toothpaste
Scientific research has consistently shown that fluoride is not only effective at preventing cavities — it can also repair tooth enamel. Fluorine is a naturally occurring element that is perfectly safe when used as directed. The American Dental Association recommends using just a smear of fluoride-containing toothpaste on the toothbrush for babies and toddlers younger than age 3. Children ages 3-6 should use a pea-sized dab.
9) Don’t brush or floss immediately after drinking acidic beverages (like soda, sports drinks and juices)
This might seem strange at first: isn’t that when you’d want to brush? Actually it’s not, and here’s why: Acids “soften” the hard enamel covering of your teeth by dissolving the superficial layer/s. Ever notice how gritty your teeth feel directly after drinking a Coke? That’s the acid at work immediately. Acids in sodas, sports drinks and juices dissolve calcium out of the surface enamel by a process called de-mineralization. But saliva, which is rich in minerals, has a natural neutralizing and buffering ability that will re-mineralize enamel surfaces affected by acid. However, this can take 30-60 minutes. That softened surface layer can easily be removed with a toothbrush. Just like being over-vigorous, brushing right after you consume acidic food or drinks can have very negative consequences for your teeth leading to significant enamel erosion. It’s best to wait at least one hour to allow your saliva enough time to neutralize the acidic attack.
10) Do drink enough water
Keeping your mouth moist is really important. Mouth dryness increases biofilm (plaque) accumulation and your risk for both tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease. Mouth dryness is caused by smoking, alcohol, caffeine and especially some over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Because we tend to take more medications as we age, we should also drink more water. Drinking plenty of water and keeping well hydrated has a number of health benefits for your entire body. In your mouth, it keeps sensitive tissues moist, and promotes the healthful action of saliva. Saliva not only buffers acids, as mentioned above — it also aids digestion, helps the mouth fight germs, and even has a role in protecting the teeth from decay.