Dental hygiene is very important -- especially if you want to keep your teeth healthy and clean. The following tips will help you to keep tartar and plaque at bay.
Brush. Focus on quality, not quantity. You may brush after every meal, snack, or sip of soda, but if your technique is lousy, you won't be doing your teeth much good.
The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends the following method:
Hold the brush at a 45-degree angle against the gum line. Point the brush upward, or toward your nose, when you're cleaning the upper teeth; downward, or toward your chin, when you're doing the lower teeth. Working the bristles at this angle will ensure that you clean the gum line, which too many brushers miss.
Use a short (about the width of half a tooth) back-and-forth motion to clean the outer surfaces of your teeth. Focus on just one or two teeth at a time. And be gentle; you're not scrubbing the floor or the bathtub. Brushing too hard can damage the gums and the teeth.
Use this same stroke on the inside surfaces of all the teeth, except the front ones. Remember to keep the brush angled (at 45 degrees) toward the gum line.
Scrub the chewing surfaces of your back teeth with the brush held flat in the same back-and-forth motion.
Tilt the brush vertically, and use the front (or top) part of the brush in short up-and-down strokes to clean the inside surfaces of the front teeth, both top and bottom.
Don't forget to brush your tongue. It can harbor disease-causing plaque, too.
Use the right tools. The ADA recommends a soft nylon brush with rounded-end, polished bristles. Hard bristles (as well as brushing too hard) can wear away the enamel that protects your teeth and can form grooves in the teeth. What's more, abrasive bristles can also damage tender gums, causing them to recede, or pull away, from the teeth.
Get a brush with a head that's small enough to reach all of your teeth, especially those in the back. Some adults may actually prefer using a child-sized brush. Don't be stingy with toothbrushes, either -- replace your brush every three months, or sooner if the bristles become frayed, splayed, or worn.
Don't worry about going hi-tech. An old-fashioned manual toothbrush can clean teeth just as effectively as any electric product. But if your manual dexterity's not up to par or you think having a teeth-cleaning toy will make you brush longer and more often, an electric brush may be a good idea.
Use a fluoridated toothpaste. Choose a product with the ADA's seal of acceptance. What's so wonderful about fluoride? It combines with the minerals in saliva to "remineralize," or strengthen, the teeth, preventing cavities in both children and adults. You may think you don't get cavities anymore, but as you get older, your gums recede, exposing the roots of teeth, which lack the protective coating of enamel and are prone to a type of decay known as root caries.
Try a tartar-control toothpaste. If you tend to develop a lot of tartar, using such a product can help. While these toothpastes don't eliminate tartar altogether, studies show that they can reduce tartar deposits by 30 to 40 percent. Chemicals such as pyrophosphate in tartar-control pastes interfere with the deposits of calcium salt.
Floss. Too many people think of flossing simply as a way to dislodge the roast beef or popcorn kernels stuck between their teeth. But regular (once a day, at the very least) use of dental floss is essential for cleaning between teeth and under the gums and warding off both cavities and gum disease. Here's how to floss correctly:
Start with 18 to 24 inches of floss, and wind most of it around the middle or index finger on one hand (whichever finger is the most comfortable for you).
Wrap the rest of the floss around the same finger on the other hand. Think of this other finger as the take-up spool for the used floss. Don't scrimp. Use a clean section of floss as you work between each tooth. Otherwise, you're just moving bacteria from one tooth to another.
Hold the floss tightly with your thumbs and forefingers, leaving about an inch of floss between them. The floss should be taut.
Use a gentle "sawing" motion as you pull the floss between the teeth. Be careful not to snap it into the tender gum tissue.
When you've reached the gum line, curve the floss into a "C" shape to fit snugly around the tooth, and slide it into the space between the gum and tooth gently.
Bring the floss out from the gum and scrape the side of the tooth, following its contour from bottom to top to remove as much plaque as possible. After you pull it out, use a clean section of floss to clean the tooth on the other side of that space.
Be sure to clean the back side of the last tooth on each side, both top and bottom.
Relax about wax. Don't worry about choosing between waxed or unwaxed floss. Pick what's comfortable. Flavored flosses are fine, too, especially if you find yourself using them more frequently. If your fingers are too awkward, you suffer from arthritis, or you have a lot of bridgework, floss threaders and/or any of the various floss holders may help; they're available at drugstores.
Know that there's no substitute for flossing. Flossing is the best way to clean between your teeth. No other method works nearly as well. But if you absolutely, positively refuse to floss, ask your dentist or hygienist about alternatives.
Some dentists recommend soft wooden interproximal cleaners, like Stim-u-Dents (the rubber tips on some toothbrushes). Interproximal brushes, which look like tiny bottle brushes, work, too, but won't always fit in tight spaces between teeth. Oral irrigators can help hose down the nooks and crannies in your teeth, too, but these products are not a replacement for flossing. A word of caution: Don't use Stim-u-Dents or oral irrigators until after you've brushed and flossed because of the danger of pushing debris or plaque deeper into a pocket.
Test yourself. Disclosing tablets or solution, available at drugstores, can reveal the plaque that's left after you've brushed and flossed. At first, you may be shocked by how much plaque you've been missing, but don't get discouraged. While it's impossible to remove every bit of this bacterial nuisance, using these tablets can show where you're not cleaning thoroughly and help you improve your brushing and flossing skills.
Wet your whistle. Saliva naturally cleanses the mouth and helps fight bacteria. But dry mouth is a side effect of some 300 to 400 different medications, including antidepressants, antihistamines, and drugs used to treat high blood pressure and Parkinson's disease. A disease called Sjogren's syndrome, which can accompany some rheumatoid conditions, also slows down the flow of saliva (and causes dry eyes, too). If you've had radiation therapy to the head and neck for cancer, your saliva glands may have been damaged.
You can fight dry mouth with sugarless gum or candy or with artificial saliva, available over the counter. It's also wise to take frequent sips of water. And because dry mouth tends to worsen during sleep, try coating your lips, mouth, and tongue with mineral oil (then spit it out) before getting into bed (but after brushing and flossing).
Don't rely on "miracle" rinses. The commercials on television look so appealing: A swig of this product, a few swishes in the mouth, and, almost like magic, all that nasty plaque is gone. If only it were that simple. You can't rinse away plaque and tartar.
Only two products have the acceptance of the ADA's Council on Dental Therapeutics for reducing plaque: Peridex, available by prescription only, contains 0.12 percent chlorhexidine, a powerful germ-fighter, and over-the-counter Listerine, which relies on a combination of oils, including menthol, eucalyptol, and thymol, along with alcohol. However, even if you add one of these rinses to your daily oral health-care regimen, you still need to brush and floss.
Everything you put in your mouth affects the health of your teeth, including the food you eat. In the final section, we'll discuss foods that promote proper oral hygiene and offer tips on using common household items to prevent tartar and plaque build-up.