You've been brushing your teeth for decades, but do you really know how to do it correctly? The proper tooth brushing technique can make a big difference in your oral health.
"Your mouth is filled with bacteria that sticks to your teeth. Once stuck there, the bacteria grow into a biofilm, which is comparable to the scum on the bottom of a boat," Frank A. Scannapieco, DMD, PhD, chair of oral biology at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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The idea is that brushing removes this layer of bacteria daily. If not, the bacteria damage gums, form calcium deposits on teeth and create cavities over time.
"I fear that many people are not really brushing as well as they should, and it does result in a lot of gingivitis and gum disease," Dr. Scannapieco says.
Here, common mistakes that you may be making with your oral health and the quick tweaks to support your teeth:
Mistake 1: Brushing Your Teeth Only
One of the most common errors in brushing technique is focusing too much on the top of teeth themselves and avoiding the gums.
"You should focus on the gumline, the area where most bacteria grow," Dr. Scannapieco says.
Plaque that's allowed to linger next to or under gums eventually causes gum inflammation, a condition called gingivitis. Gingivitis is an early stage of gum disease, notes the U.S. Library of Medicine. Make sure you're gently massaging gums with your toothbrush during your cleaning session.
Mistake 2: Using a Firm-Bristled Toothbrush
Hard or firm bristles will wear away your gums, especially when you use them repeatedly over the years, Dr. Scannapieco says.
A soft-bristled brush (look for that term on the packaging) will be kinder to your gums while still being able to remove the bacteria-laden biofilm before it hardens into tartar.
Mistake 3: Picking the Wrong Flosser
The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends cleaning in between teeth once per day. String floss, interdental cleaners (a small brush-like device) and water flossers can all do the job. Finding the one best suited for you will help remove plaque most effectively.
For instance, if you have larger spaces in between teeth (which often happens with gum recession in gum disease), then Dr. Scannapieco recommends using an interdental cleaner. If you have something like a permanent retainer, then a water flosser (aka Waterpik) might be helpful.
Ask your dentist, but know that there are alternatives out there if you struggle with string floss.
As for the best time to floss? Before bed, floss first — to push accumulated bacteria out — and then follow-up with brushing, he says.
Mistake 4: Not Brushing for Long Enough
The correct brushing duration? Two minutes, according to the ADA.
"I'm not sure how rigorously the two-minute mark has been tested, but the average person brushes about 30 seconds, which is probably not enough," Dr. Scannapieco says.
From flossing to brushing and then rinsing with mouthwash (if you choose to), your whole oral health routine should take two to five minutes, he says.
That's an eternity if you're used to a quick brush sesh, so it will take "training" to get used to. Setting a timer on your phone and increasing the time you brush by 20-second increments can help. As can using an electric toothbrush. Many models have a built-in timer that guides you through 30 seconds in each of the four quadrants of your mouth.
Mistake 5: Skipping Fluoride Toothpaste
Fluoride has gotten a bad reputation in recent years with worries about its safety. Plus, more people have turned to alternative ingredients in toothpaste, like charcoal. However, fluoride is the active therapeutic component that protects teeth, Dr. Scannapieco says.
"I'd say that if you want tooth decay, don't use a fluoride toothpaste. That's the active ingredient in the product. Everything else in there is for fresh breath and flavor. When used as directed, fluoride toothpaste is safe," he says.
Mistake 6: Not Brushing Before Bed
Most dentists recommend brushing twice per day (at least): Once in the morning (after breakfast, if you can) and once before bed. The ADA also suggests twice-daily brushing.
That said, there's not convincing evidence that it needs to be done more than once per day, Dr. Scannapieco says. That's not license to let your mouth go, and how many times you should brush per day depends on your current oral health and risk factors, so talk to your dentist about what they recommend.
At the very least, though, you should brush before bed. Forget being too tired to do it and thinking that you'll just freshen up in the morning. "Your mouth dries up when sleeping, and saliva is a natural defender of the mouth. It's best to go to sleep with a clean mouth," Dr. Scannapieco says.
Mistake 7: Not Scraping Your Tongue
Your tongue is a hotbed for bacteria, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Much of this bacteria is healthy, but some can contribute to issues like tooth decay and gum infection.
The solution? Tongue scraping. This is the most effective way to get rid of the bad bacteria and plaque living on the surface of your tongue.
If you don't currently have a tongue scraper on hand (they're easy to find at most drug stores!), brushing your tongue regularly can help remove some of the bad bacteria in the meantime, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.