Taking care of your teeth is important. Health problems linked to poor oral hygiene include diabetes, dementia and cardiovascular disease—even erectile dysfunction. But there’s some disagreement about the best way to brush your teeth. The controversy got started last summer when a study in the British Dental Journal reported that there’s no consensus among dentists about the most effective way to wield a toothbrush. The authors found there are as many opinions on how to use a toothbrush as there are dentists and that can confuse patients. But is it really so complicated?
Not according to the dentists I talked to: Dr. Bruce Matthews and his sons, Drs. Dan and Brian. (Disclaimer: These are my dentists.) Brushing and flossing are a must to remove particulate buildup from food and bacteria. They say the most important thing is to brush and floss regularly reaching all possible tooth surfaces as well as your tongue. Twice a day is recommended but three times is better. And give it time: It should take two minutes to clean your entire mouth—including your tongue—thoroughly. Here are some additional recommendations to chew on:
The toothbrush: According to the American Dental Association, a manual toothbrush can be just as effective as an electric one if used properly. “I use a manual toothbrush,” says Dr. Brian. “There’s no real difference if you’re doing a good job with a manual brush.” What does matter is texture and size. Soft bristles or even extra soft bristles are recommended for everyone to prevent gum damage. The size and shape of the brush should allow you to reach all areas easily.
The toothpaste: The key ingredient in all toothpastes is fluoride. “I cringe when I hear people using holistic toothpastes,” says Dr. Dan. “They may taste better but so does brushing your teeth with a tube of cake icing.” Always look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. Whitening toothpastes are OK but don’t expect miracles. Plus, the abrasives in these products can increase sensitivity and cause pain in some people, he adds.
Dental floss: People make all kinds of excuses for not flossing but floss goes where the brush can’t: between the teeth where most decay occurs. Flossing at least once a day—preferably before bedtime—is essential but it wouldn’t hurt to do it after every meal. Waxed and unwaxed varieties work equally well but “connoisseurs” prefer unwaxed. “Unwaxed allows the strands to spread out and the more they spread out the more they’re going to collect and remove plaque,” says Dr. Bruce.
Mouthwash: Mouthwash is nice but not essential. It does kill bacteria but most grow back after a few minutes. That’s because a healthy mouth needs friendly flora, says Dr. Bruce.
Brushing techniques: Brushing your teeth is so second nature that you probably don’t think too much about what you’re doing. But the British study got everyone thinking: Is one technique better than another? Two of the more popular methods are the modified Bass and the Fones. The modified Bass involves holding the brush at a 45 degree angle to where the tooth meets the gum, moving it gently back and forth and then down (or up). The Fones technique, generally recommended for kids and adults with limited dexterity, involves moving the brush in a circular motion.
Which do our experts recommend? The answer (drum roll, please): Either or some combination of the two.
And that’s good news because the British study concludes by saying there’s little evidence that any one method keeps teeth cleaner. And old habits are hard to break.
“As long as you’re brushing and making sure to get all the surfaces of the teeth including down by the gum line, I don’t think it matters,” says Dr. Dan.