Dental hygiene practices at home may not seem very sexy—it really means knowing how to carefully clean your teeth and gums at home in ways many people have never learned. In addition to whatever you can do on your own once you learn the right ways, which a hygienist can teach you, you also need to have the cleaning regularly done in the dental office because the tools and techniques there go far beyond brushing and flossing.
How often and long do you brush and floss? According to a recent survey by the insurance company Delta Dental, while 70% of Americans do brush their teeth the recommended twice a day, they come up a bit short when it comes to the minimum of two minutes required to do the brushing right:
- Use a brush with the soft or medium type of bristle brush or, better, an electric toothbrush (ask your hygienist for recommendations).
- Add fluoride toothpaste and start at the gumline (to keep bacteria from forming a sticky film there called plaque, which can start gum disease), brushing upwards at a 45-degree angle using short strokes and moving back and forth over your teeth.
- Spend 20-30 seconds for the front surfaces, the same for the back surfaces, and finally 10 seconds for the chewing surfaces on the left and then the right. Then repeat this for another minute on the upper set of teeth. Don’t brush too hard because that can wear away at the enamel, the hard surface that protects teeth from bacteria.
- An additional minute gently massaging the gums at the same angle (especially if you have bleeding gums) would also be beneficial. Brushing the tongue will remove more bacteria that could cause gum disease.
- How to time all this? Use the timer on your cell phone, put on a two-minute song, use a stopwatch, or go just watch the clock (or really old school and use a sand timer, as long as it you’ve checked how long it takes to finish). Some electric brushes have a built-in timer.
- The best time to brush is normally right after breakfast and before you go to bed. However, if you eat sugary, sticky food or drink sweet coffee, tea, sodas, wine, or smoke during the day, then after lunch would be better, though it means bringing your teeth-cleaning kit to work.
- Using a mouthwash that is more than a breath freshener will also help, such as over-the-counter ones with the ingredient cetyl pyridinium, or ask your hygienist for a recommendation for your case.
The sad thing is that the statistics mean that 30% of Americans don’t brush twice a day and 23% have gone two or more days without brushing in the past year (37% of those aged 18 to 24, when lifelong habits of oral care are being formed). A third of Americans also don’t see a dentist even once a year to have their oral health status checked, even though the periodontal disease can lead to not only loss of teeth, but a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases.
Only 40% of Americans floss at least the recommended once a day and 20% never floss. Flossing (which goes beyond the two minutes for brushing) needs to be done right to be effective and most people should have their hygienist demonstrate this. The floss should be wrapped around the middle fingers of each hand, leaving a couple of inches free in between. Then using the index or pointing fingers to guide, place it at the gumline and pull it up and down against each of the teeth to scrape their sides.
If you have crooked teeth or gaps where food may get stuck, you should use a small dental pick with bristles to clean these areas. Those who find flossing physically hard to do can use an electric water pick, which relies on water pressure to not only remove food particles but can provide helpful gum massage. You lean over the sink and place the tip into your mouth with the lips closed and turn it on, aiming the tip just above the gumline as you move it around the mouth. You can pause briefly to allow water to flow into the sink.
No matter how good your home dental care skills are, it’s important to have a dental hygienist use her sophisticated tools and resources to clean your teeth at least twice a year.
In addition to probing for infected gum pockets around the teeth, cleaning them out and scraping off the hardened plaque that can lead to periodontal disease, she can:
- Do deep irrigation with an antibacterial solution.
- Implant antibiotic pellets for serious cases of infection, which will release the medicine over time.
- Use a laser to cut away small amounts of diseased gum painlessly.
- Do root planning to keep teeth from becoming so the that a root canal is required.