Let’s talk about two important topics: why it’s important to brush and floss, and how to do it.
A good oral hygiene routine is one of the best ways to lower your risk of dental problems like bad breath, tooth decay, gum disease or tooth loss. But even if you know brushing and flossing are important, are you sure you’re doing it right?
When you visit the dentist for your regular check-ups, they can offer guidance to you and your family about the correct way to brush and floss to help keep tooth decay at bay.
Why is oral hygiene important?
Proper, routine brushing and flossing help reduce dental plaque, a sticky film of bacteria that can build up on the teeth.
Plaque build-up can cause issues like tooth decay, cavities and gum disease. It can also contribute to tooth stains, while other bacteria on your tongue may cause bad breath. If hardens on your teeth, it becomes tartar, which usually needs to be removed by a professional.
Teeth brushing helps you remove plaque and leftover food from the surfaces of your teeth. Flossing is also important for reaching the areas a toothbrush can't.
How to brush teeth
To get the most out of your tooth-brushing session, you should:
- use a fluoride toothpaste
- brush twice a day, ideally in the morning and at night
- brush for two minutes, spending equal time in all parts of your mouth
- brush all surfaces of the tooth – the top, the front and the back
Dentists and hygienists may be able to spot signs of inadequate brushing during a check-up or clean. They can then give you specific tips for improving your brushing.
For many dental professionals, this isn’t because they’re trying to make you feel bad for not brushing perfectly, but rather because they want to help you navigate any circumstances that are making it harder to brush. For example, if two of your teeth are closer together than others, it could be more difficult to remove plaque or food from those teeth. A dentist or hygienist might flag this with you so you know to spend extra time on that area when you brush.
The best way to brush your teeth can depend on your individual circumstances, but generally you should try to follow the steps below.
- Rinse your toothbrush clean and apply a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.
- Angle the head of your toothbrush at 45 degrees and clean the outer (front) surfaces of your teeth in circular motions. Try not to scrub horizontally, since this can make it easier to damage your gums.
- Brush the inside (back) surfaces of your teeth in the same way.
- Brush the chewing surfaces of your teeth in a side-to-side motion.
- Brush or gently scrape your tongue, starting from the back to the front.
- Make sure you don't swallow any toothpaste and don't rinse your mouth with water after brushing. This may help the fluoride protect your teeth for longer.
When should I brush my teeth?
The best times to brush your teeth are in the morning before breakfast and at night before you go to bed. Your dentist might recommend brushing your teeth more often if you experience certain oral health conditions or are completing a treatment (for example, if you have braces).
Don't brush your teeth straight after eating or drinking. Food and drink can leave acids on the surfaces of teeth that make them more vulnerable to damage, and brushing right away can strip away some of the surface. You should rinse your mouth with water instead and wait 30–60 minutes before brushing.
What type of toothbrush should I use?
Try to stick with a soft-bristled brush. Harder bristles might increase your risk of damaging your gums or tooth enamel (especially if you have a heavier hand when you brush).
As for the brush’s head size, this will depend on the size of your mouth and any other individual factors. A dental professional can give you tailored advice, but generally you should aim for a size that’s comfortable and helps you reach all of your teeth.
Younger kids should use small children's toothbrushes until their mouth is large enough for a standard toothbrush.
As for manual versus electric toothbrush, this is mostly personal preference. If a dentist tells you that you’re brushing too hard or wearing away your gum tissue, an electric toothbrush might help you achieve the right motion while you brush. And, for young children, an electric toothbrush might be a better option until they can master a circular, thorough brushing technique on their own.
What type of toothpaste should I use?
Make sure you choose a fluoride toothpaste to help strengthen your enamel. Special toothpastes are available for people with sensitive teeth and gums.
Adult toothpaste is not safe for young children. Up to the age of 18 months, you should clean a child's teeth and gums using water only. Children older than 18 months should use low-fluoride children's toothpaste before starting to use regular toothpaste around the age of 6.
Why do I need to floss?
A toothbrush can't reach all the surfaces of your teeth. Flossing is important for cleaning the edges of the teeth to remove plaque and food trapped in the gaps. Flossing along the gum line can also help lower your risk of gum disease and bad breath.
You should floss between all of your teeth at least once a day, although your dentist may recommend more frequent flossing if you’re experiencing an issue like gingivitis or you snack more often through the day.
You can use dental floss, an interdental brush or an electric water flosser. Don't use toothpicks or other sharp objects to clean between your teeth, as these could damage your teeth or injure your gums.
How to floss
Unless a dental professional has given you advice that’s more specific to your individual circumstances, try to follow the below steps.
- Break off 45cm (approx. 18 inches) of dental floss and wind this around one of your middle fingers.
- Tie the end of the floss to the middle finger on your other hand. This finger will collect the floss as it's used up.
- Holding the floss between your thumbs and index fingers on both hands, gently guide it into the gap between two teeth.
- Gently move the floss back and forth, working your way up the teeth towards the gum.
- Repeat this for every tooth, spending the same amount of time to clean all of the teeth in your mouth.
- Throw the used floss away (it could contain bacteria or other dirt).
Do I need to use mouthwash?
You should speak with a dentist or hygienist to answer this question. Not everyone needs to use mouthwash, while others should use special mouthwashes as prescribed by a dental professional. You might prefer to use an over-the-counter mouthwash since some of them can help reduce bacteria and prevent bad breath.
Children shouldn’t use mouthwash unless a dentist advises otherwise. Many mouthwash products contain alcohol, and small children aren’t always champions at not swallowing mouthwash or toothpaste.
Other ways to keep your teeth and gums clean
Regular brushing and flossing are important, but they’re not the only factors in your oral health. You should also think about your diet and how often you visit a dental clinic.
Nutrition & diet
To minimise your risk of dental health problems, try to avoid sugary, acidic and sticky foods or beverages. Once it’s in your mouth, sugar may feed the bacteria that can damage the surfaces of your tooth or your gums.
It’s not just a matter of how much of these foods you consume, but how often you consume them and how much time they spend with your teeth and gums. For instance, it may be worse for your dental health to sip a sugary soft drink all day long than it would be to drink it one sitting and clean your mouth afterward.
Routine dental visits
No matter how diligent you are with oral hygiene, it’s still best to visit a dentist for a professional check-up and clean. Dentists have tools and techniques that help them spot issues that may go unnoticed by the naked eye (or the untrained eye). Plus, a professional cleaning appointment can help you remove tartar and other debris that you may not be able to remove yourself.
Not sure how often to go or what to expect? Read more about dental check-ups and hygiene appointments.
The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.