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How to Take Care of Your Teeth

Taking care of your teeth helps prevent cavities and gum disease.

Brushing and flossing properly can prevent plaque (say: plak), a clear film of bacteria that sticks to your teeth. After you eat, the bacteria break down sugar on your teeth into acids that eat away tooth enamel, causing holes called cavities. Plaque also causes a gum disease that can make your gums red, swollen, and sore.

How Do I Get Rid of Plaque?

To prevent cavities, you need to remove plaque. To do this, brush your teeth twice a day and floss at least once a day. Brushing also stimulates the gums, which helps to keep them healthy and prevent gum disease. Brushing and flossing are the most important things that you can do to keep your teeth and gums healthy.

Use a toothpaste with fluoride to prevent cavities.

What’s the Right Way to Brush My Teeth?

Dentists say you should brush your teeth for at least 2 minutes twice a day. Here are some tips on how to brush:

  • Hold your brush at a 45-degree angle against your gumline. Gently brush in short (about one tooth-wide) strokes. Don't brush too hard!
  • Brush all outside and inside areas of your teeth, and the chewing surfaces.
  • You can also gently brush your tongue.
  • Use a timer or play a favorite song while brushing your teeth to get used to brushing for a full 2 to 3 minutes. Some electronic toothbrushes have timers that let you know when 2 minutes are up.

What About Flossing?

Brushing is important but it won't remove the plaque and particles of food between your teeth and near the gumline. You'll need to floss these spaces at least once a day.

With any floss, you should be careful to avoid injuring your gums. Follow these instructions:

  • Carefully insert the floss between two teeth, using a back and forth motion. Gently bring the floss to the gumline, but don't force it under the gums. Curve the floss around the edge of your tooth in the shape of the letter "C" and slide it up and down the side of each tooth.
  • Repeat this process between all your teeth.

Does What I Eat Affect My Teeth?

Eating sugar, as you probably already know, is a major cause of tooth decay. But it's not just how much sugar you eat — when and how you eat it can be just as important.

If you eat sugary foods or drink sodas throughout the day, you give the bacteria in your mouth food. Well-fed bacteria make cavities more likely. Hard candies, cough drops, and breath mints that contain sugar are especially harmful because they dissolve slowly in your mouth. It’s best not to eat sugary foods between meals.

Sugary or starchy foods eaten with a meal are less harmful to teeth than when they're eaten alone. This might be because our mouths make more spit during eating, which washes away the sugar and bacteria. Eating sugary foods before bedtime can be the most damaging (especially if you don't brush your teeth afterward) because we don’t make as much spit when we sleep.

For most people, it's hard to cut out sweets completely. So try to follow these more realistic guidelines:

  • Eat carbohydrates (sugars and starches) with a meal.
  • If you can't brush your teeth after eating, rinse your mouth with water or mouthwash, or chew sugarless gum.
  • Don't eat sugary foods between meals.
  • If you snack, eat non-sugary foods, such as cheese, popcorn, raw veggies, or yogurt.

When Should I Go to the Dentist?

Going to the dentist every 6 months can help prevent tooth decay, gum disease, and other problems. The dentist will let you know if any cavities need to be filled. Your dentist also may refer you to an orthodontist if you may need braces or have other issues.

Besides preventive visits, also see the dentist if you notice any pain or other problems with your teeth, gums, or jaw.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021