“Go ahead and rinse.” You’re a captive audience in the dental chair, getting a mouthful of good advice as the suction tube gurgles and your teeth get a much-needed cleaning.
“Swish and spit.” As the blood from your puffy gums oozes down the mini-sink bowl, the dental hygienist explains how to improve your brushing and flossing routine. By the time you’ve replaced the cup properly so it refills with water, you’ve lost the moment to respond. The tightly gloved hand is back in your mouth, deftly swirling, probing and scraping with shining instruments.
“Let me know if I hit a tender spot.” Just when you think one side is done, the slender dental pick doubles back to the trouble area.
“How often do you floss?” Then: “Hmm, this might be a cavity.” You listen uneasily, trying at all costs to avoid the gritty polishing paste with your tongue. What other choice do you have – jump out of the chair and flee, the paper dribble bib flapping from your neck?
You’re filled with relief as the hygienist passes you the round hand mirror, signaling the cleaning is complete and the dentist will be in shortly. Admit it: Your plaque-free, gleaming teeth look and feel great as your slide your tongue around their newly smooth surfaces.
When you’re in the chair, it may feel a lecture, but to the dental hygienist taking care of you, it’s essential education. Because even the most thorough professional cleaning every six months (or so) can’t replace the need for good oral self-care the other 363 days a year. Here, veteran dental hygienists revisit the top advice they give their patients – and why.
Battle bacteria. Brushing, flossing and mouth rinses are all aimed at ridding your mouth of bacteria, says Helen Hawkey, a dental hygienist and public health dental practitioner in Pittsburgh. “Whether it’s gum disease or it’s dental cavities, it’s disease caused by bacteria,” she says. Whatever barriers you face, like not having enough time to floss during the day, there’s never judging and always a workaround, she says. “A lot of times I’ll say, ‘Hey, I don’t floss like I should,'” Hawkey says. “But what I’ve found is I’ll grab some of these little wooden toothpicks or a water flosser, and I’ll do this when I get home from work, before I make dinner.”
Keep standard dental appointments. Need a visual? “Think about the mold in your bathroom in the shower,” says Nora Lugaila, a registered dental hygienist and public health dental hygiene practitioner in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. “What three things happen in a shower that make that mold grow? It’s dark, it’s warm and it’s moist. With your mouth, it’s kind of the same thing, especially under your gums – it’s dark, warm and moist. Bacteria like to be left alone to eat all the stuff in there, and grow and get nasty. So that’s why you come in every six months so I can clean that out.”
Flossing matters. Flossing is important because your teeth are round, not flat, especially your back teeth. “Where they’re touching, you’re not reaching,” Lugaila says. “With a toothbrush, you’re missing almost two-thirds of the teeth.” Brushing alone cleans teeth’s outer and inner surfaces but misses the sides, paving the way for infection. Flossing feels awkward for many people, admits Lugaila, who’s worked in a private practice for 30 years and has recently taken on a public health role as well. “So I try to show them,” she says. “It takes practice and it takes time just to work at it.”
White teeth aren’t everything. A common joke among dental hygienists, according to Hawkey: “You can tell a patient they have 16 cavities, and they’ll say, ‘But do you do whitening?'” But having model-white teeth is a cosmetic concern, not a sign of superior oral health. “White teeth are not necessarily healthy teeth,” Lugaila says. “I see many, many people with yellow or gray teeth, and they think their teeth are not healthy or not clean.” But that’s not the case. “Just like the whites of our eyes are different and our skin tones are different, your teeth have different shades,” she says.
Shorten coffee and soda sessions. If you consume coffee throughout your day or continually swill soda, it’s time to rethink how you drink. And it’s not just about coffee stains. “You shouldn’t drink anything all day long [except water], whether it’s coffee, tea, sports drinks or soda,” Lugaila says. “In between meals, you should only drink water.” Coffee is very acidic, she says, and it changes the pH balance in your mouth. At the very least, she suggests rinsing your mouth with a little water after each cup of joe to neutralize the acidity. Sparkling water might or might not be OK to drink throughout the day, Lugaila says. Carbonated water alone is no problem, she says, but if it contains citric acid, too much could damage tooth enamel – so check the label on your bottled water.
Tongue-scraping tips. Besides attacking your teeth and gums, bacteria also dwell on your tongue. That’s why hygienists recommend brushing your tongue or trying a tongue scraper. The trick is getting used to it. While tongue scrapers are “great,” Hawkey says, compliance can be a bit tough. “If you’re not taught how to adequately use them, it can be a little gaggy-feeling for patients,” she says. Her best tip: Don’t scrape back and forth or up and down on the tongue, because the repetitive motion can make you gag. Instead, scrape in one direction, such as back to front. The desire to avoid bad breath motivates many patients, Hawkey says: “In order to have your breath smell good, you must have a clean tongue.”
Two minutes, twice a day. “To keep your teeth for life, it’s brushing and flossing,” Lugaila says. “You have to do those twice a day – the combination.” That two-minute routine, usually in the morning and evening, is time well-spent, she says. “You want to be infection-free. You want to be able to speak and chew your food. Let’s make it so you feel good about yourself and want to smile.”
Dentures are never inevitable. “A lot of people have the preconceived notion of ‘My parents had dentures, my grandparents had dentures, so I’m just going to have dentures,'” Lugaila says. “And that is not true at all.'” It’s not dependent on whether your family has a history of dental problems, she emphasizes, but how you take care of your own teeth: “It goes back to what’s important to you – and if you’re teeth are important, you can keep them for your lifetime,” she says.
Opt for exam extras. “You should make sure that a dental professional, whether it’s the hygienist or the dentist in the office, is doing a thorough oral cancer screening,” Hawkey says. Examining a patient’s mouth, jaw and throat during a routine visit can reveal suspicious changes such as red or white patches, tenderness and lumps. It’s not only smokers at risk, she notes, but often younger patients who’ve acquired the human papillomavirus, or HPV. With early detection, patients can be referred to physicians to start treatment. Another possible medical bonus: Dental panoramic X-rays can also detect plaque in the carotid arteries – leading some patients to see heart specialists for potentially lifesaving treatment.
Maintain that superfresh smile. As you leave the dentist’s office and check out your smile in the rear-view mirror, you wish your teeth could always look and feel this good. With all the dental aids and products now available to consumers, it’s entirely possible, Hawkey says. “It’s not just brushes and string floss. We’ve got water flossers; we’ve got air flossers. We’ve got power toothbrushes and dental picks.” A water flosser “is basically a pressure washer for your mouth,” she says. With tools like these, she adds, “it’s kind of hard to have an excuse not to have a clean mouth anymore.”