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Taking Care of Your Teeth

Medically reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD

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

Brushing and flossing properly can prevent plaque (pronounced: plak), a clear film of 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 gingivitis, which is 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.

Tartar is plaque that’s harder, and more damaging and difficult to remove. Using anti-tartar toothpastes and mouthwashes, and spending extra time brushing the teeth near the salivary glands (the inside of the lower front teeth and the outside of the upper back teeth) may slow the development of new tartar.

If your teeth are sensitive to heat, cold, and pressure, you may want to try a special toothpaste for sensitive teeth. But talk to your dentist about your sensitivity to make sure it isn’t caused by any cavities or nerve problems.

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 properly:

  • Hold your brush at a 45-degree angle against your gumline. Gently brush in short (about one tooth-wide) strokes. Brushing too hard can cause receding gums, tooth sensitivity, and, over time, loose teeth.
  • Brush all outside and inside surfaces of your teeth, and the chewing surfaces. Make sure to get into the pits and crevices.
  • 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.

Do I Really Need to Floss?

Yes. 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.

How Can I Whiten My Teeth?

Some toothpastes claim to whiten teeth. There's nothing wrong with using whitening toothpastes as long as they also contain fluoride and ingredients that fight plaque and tartar. If it has the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance, it’s been found to work well and is safe to use.

Most teens don't need tooth whitening because teeth usually don’t start to yellow until a person gets older.

If you think your teeth aren't white enough, though, talk to your dentist before you try any over-the-counter whitening products. Some can irritate the gums and make teeth sensitive. Your dentist might offer you professional treatment, which will be suited to your needs and work better than over-the-counter products.

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 saliva 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?

The main reason to go to the dentist every 6 months is prevention. The goal is to prevent tooth decay, gum disease, and other problems that put the health of your teeth and mouth at risk.

Your first visit with a dentist will probably consist of three main parts:

  1. a dental and medical history where the dentist or dental hygienist asks you questions about your tooth care and reviews any dental records
  2. a dental exam
  3. a professional cleaning

The dentist will examine your teeth, gums, and other mouth tissues. They also might check the joints of your jaws. The dentist will use a mirror and probe (a metal pick-like instrument) to check the crown (visible part) of each tooth for plaque and evidence of looseness or decay. The dentist also will check your bite and the way your teeth fit together (called occlusion).

Your dentist will check the general condition of your gums, which should be firm and pink, not soft, swollen, or inflamed. The dentist (or an assistant) will use the probe to check the depth of the sulcus, the slight depression where each tooth meets the gum. Deep depressions, called pockets, are signs of gum disease.

Your dentist may take X-rays to look for tooth decay, abscesses (collections of pus surrounded by swollen tissue), or wisdom teeth.

Cleaning to get rid of plaque and tartar is usually done by a dental hygienist, who is specially trained and licensed. 

After cleaning, the dental hygienist will polish your teeth. The process cleans and smooths the surfaces of the teeth, removing stains and making it harder for plaque to stick to the teeth. Finally, the hygienist may treat your teeth with a fluoride compound or a sealant to help prevent decay.

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.

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