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It's been said that "you're never fully dressed without a smile," but getting those healthy, pearly whites is close to impossible without keeping up a proper dental routine. When it comes to basic oral care, it comes down to the three basics: brushing, flossing and mouth rinse. But when put into practice, there's some things you need to know to make sure you're getting the best clean possible.
So, we asked the experts to give us the scoop on how to maintain our oral health — from what ingredients to look for in a toothpaste to the chewing gum that might just help keep cavities away and everything in between.
If there's one thing all three of the dental experts we spoke to agree on, it's this: If you're not using a soft bristle toothbrush, you're doing it wrong. A common misconception among brushers is that using a coarse bristle can help clean the teeth more thoroughly when, in fact, you're more likely doing more harm than good. "More important than [brushing] technique is that you should use a soft bristle toothbrush. A hard or coarse bristle toothbrush will be damaging to the gum tissue," said North Dakota-based dentist Dr. Roberta Ekman.
As to what type of toothbrush you should be using, Dr. Mina Kim of Bryant Park Dental says you can't go wrong with either a manual or electric toothbrush — just as long as the bristles are soft. However, there are some benefits to investing in a good electric toothbrush. "Personally, I prefer an electric. Instead of making all those little round strokes, it kind of does the work for you," she said. She also says that they can better reach the top back teeth, an area that a lot of people tend to miss.
When choosing a toothpaste, the main ingredient you want to be on the lookout for is fluoride. "For any toothpaste that you use, the most important thing is to make sure that it contains fluoride," said New Jersey-based dentist Dr. Loeser. You also want to make sure your toothpaste isn't overly abrasive. According to Dr. Kim, anything with too much grit "can make tiny scratches on your natural teeth." Lastly, Dr. Ekman recommends not getting caught up in the toothpaste trends going around. "I am not a fan of the charcoal toothpastes, especially for patients who've had a lot of dentistry, such as crowns or veneers," she said. "The little charcoal remnants can get stuck in and around the margins of the dental work and can stain."
"Some of the things I use and recommend to fight decay are the use of technology, like the Sonicare toothbrushes," said Dr. Ekman. "I feel that they do a really great job in breaking up the plague matrix, which houses the microbes that cause gum disease and decay. So, I think those are really good tools to use on a daily basis."
This more affordable option uses a SmarTimer and QuadPacer functionality to make sure you're cleaning all the areas of your teeth. According the brand, it's gentle on the teeth and can remove up to three times more plaque than a manual toothbrush.
According to Dr. Loeser, Sensodyne is one of the best products on the market. "The Sensodyne will help to re-mineralize the area." Dr. Kim also says that this toothpaste is one of the least abrasive and recommends it for those with sensitivity issues.
Dr. Kim says, "For a majority of my adult patients, I want them to be using some sort of fluoride mouth rinse at least one a day." She recommends this ACT option because it is over the counter and does not contain any alcohol.
Dr. Ekman recommends SmartMouth for killing sulfur-inducing microbes, which can lead to bad breath. The brand says that this rinse activates a zinc ion solution when it's poured to help keep your teeth clean and your mouth fresh.
Dr. Ekman also encourages patients to look for alcohol-free mouth washes "so that they don't create further dryness in their mouth." Listerine makes a zero-alcohol mouthwash that contains fluoride and is said to strengthen the enamel.
"Glide makes an excellent floss," said Dr. Loeser. He's fan of the brand's wax options for his patients who have very tight teeth to better capture and remove plaque.
Dr. Loeser prefers a more traditional floss, but flossers like these soft-picks are the next best thing for those who don't have the manual dexterity to hold the string properly. Soft-picks are a personal favorite of Dr. Ekman's because of its convenience. "I can have a soft-pick in my purse and use it like a toothpick. And after meals — if I can't run to the bathroom — I can grab my soft pick and go to work."
Dr. Ekman is a big fan of chewing gum — but only those that are sugar-free and contain decay-fighting properties like xylitol or recaldent. "I get a lot of patients who ask me, 'Oh, you don't mind if I chew gum?' And I'm like, 'No. If it's helping you neutralize your plaque acids, it's a good thing!'"
When it comes to the question of how many times a day you should brush your teeth and for how long, Dr. Kim suggests following the rule of two: Brush a minimum of twice a day and for a minimum of two minutes. But you want to make those two minutes count. "I've seen patients brush for five or six minutes and still miss areas," Kim said. "It's more important to make sure you're brushing all the areas carefully than to brush [for] a really, really long time."
Which leads us into brushing technique, something that Dr. Loeser notices a lot of his patients doing incorrectly. "If you're overzealous with the brushing, especially around the gum line area, you can cause recession of the gum line." To resolve this, he recommends doing gentle back-and-forth movements and covering about two teeth at a time. Dr. Ekman suggests more circular motions, saying the action should feel more like massaging the teeth rather than scrubbing.
According to Dr. Kim, many people don't seem to understand the main purpose of flossing. "It's not actually to get in between your teeth. You're actually getting under the gum." Kim says that many people believe flossing too far down can hurt the gums, but that's normally not the case. "It's almost impossible to floss too far down. You want to gently bring the floss under your gum until there is resistance. Any time you go between two teeth, go a few times to the left until there is resistance and a few times to the right, up and down."
For patients that experience discomfort or pain while flossing, this could be attributed to bacteria living in the area. "Usually, when it's painful, it's because there's existing plaque there that's causing the gums to be inflamed," explained Kim. "And by inflamed, I mean, maybe they're swollen or they're bleeding. And once you get rid of that plaque and get the gums to heal, you should have significantly less bleeding or none at all."
And if you thought flossing once a day was enough, think again. According to Dr. Ekman, plaque can build up about every 11 hours — even after brushing and flossing at the end of the day — so it's best to do it before bed and in the morning. This is especially important for people who tend to breathe through their mouths while they sleep or wear a mouth guard — both can cause plaque accumulation overnight.
The three main steps to maintaining oral health boil down to brushing, flossing and mouth rinse. But the order in which they should be used seems to still be largely up for debate.
Dr. Kim suggests flossing, brushing and then rinsing with an alcohol-free mouthwash."The reason is because when you use [a] fluoride mouth rinse, you kind of want to give it a chance to go into your teeth. You can think of fluoride like vitamins for your teeth to help them get stronger." However, if you ask Dr. Ekman, she believes you're better off doing the opposite. "I think it's probably better to brush prior to flossing in most cases because you're more apt to remove some of those microbes and not plummet them into the gum tissue."
Contrary to both Dr. Kim and Dr. Ekman, Dr. Loeser argues the benefits of a third order: Floss first, rinse with an anti-microbial mouthwash second and brush your teeth last. Why? "Because the stannous fluoride [from the toothpaste] won't be rinsed away." Solid arguments can be made for any routine, but we recommend consulting with your dentist to find the best option that works for you. No matter what order you choose, Dr. Loeser puts it best: "The most important thing is to do all three."
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