How to be a responsible adult and brush your teeth properly

You’re probably doing it wrong.

A hand reaching for another hand with a toothbrush
Brushing your teeth properly can be a truly divine experience.Goby via Unsplash

Each year, you'll spend a total of about 24 hours brushing your teeth. No, you can't just marathon it on Dec. 31 and then forget about it for a whole year. You've got to make sure you're doing it right, day in, and day out—unless you want to have fewer teeth than your great-great-grandparents.

The best sources of advice for top toothbrushing technique are the best-practice guidelines from both the American Dental Association and the British Dental Association. They're largely identical, but if you put them together, you'll get the closest thing you'll ever have to a brushing bible. We also interviewed Dr. Richard Niederman, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion at New York University's College of Dentistry, to get some adult supervision.

Brush for the right length of time

Timer on desk
There's no motivation like imagining your kitchen timer is a time bomb that will go off if you don't brush for two whole minutes.Marcelo Leal via Unsplash

Both the ADA and BDA are clear: you have to brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day, every day. Niederman is less firm: he says research shows there is little difference between brushing your teeth for two minutes or just brushing them for one. Much less, though, and you’re probably neglecting your teeth.

No matter how long you brush for, it's important to hit each and every one of your teeth, and giving yourself a minimum time is a good way to ensure you do so. Just set a timer and don't stop until it goes off. You can use the one on your phone, in the kitchen, or even get a special sand timer with smiling teeth to remind you that happy teeth mean no visits to the dentist (other than your yearly check-up, of course). You can also get an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer that will keep you brushing for two minutes.

When you brush is important, too. The BDA recommends you wait at least 60 minutes after eating, especially if you’ve had anything acidic, like citrus fruits. Some dentists think that’s because the acid from the food slightly etches your teeth and your saliva needs time to remineralize them. Brush too soon and you’re not letting your body’s natural tooth protection do its work.

Use proper brushing technique

It’s also about how you do it. To make the most of your brushing time, you’ll want to make sure you’re using the correct technique.

Use a soft-bristled toothbrush that feels comfortable and fits your mouth—hard bristles can harm your gums, and maybe even your teeth. Super-stiff bristles are only good for scrubbing the floor ‘til it shines. You can use a regular or electric toothbrush, whichever works for you—both have been shown to be effective at beating back plaque. Also, both the ADA and BDA recommend fluoride toothpaste—research shows it’s the most effective way to reduce cavities. Don’t even think about brushing your teeth without it.

Once you’ve got your brush all pasted up, hold it at a 45-degree angle to your gums and brush with short, back-and-forth strokes, while simultaneously sweeping the plaque away from your gumline. One big mistake people make is brushing too hard, believing this will be more effective and get their teeth cleaner, faster. Instead, think of the toothbrush as a broom—the harder you press, the less dirt it can sweep. So brush gently, without much pressure, if you want your toothbrush do its job properly.

Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned every surface of your teeth, don’t forget about your tongue. You can use a dedicated tongue scraper if you like, but research shows just brushing your tongue is effective at reducing bad breath.

A lot of people brush their teeth, spit out the toothpaste, rinse their mouth with water, and then use mouthwash as the final touch. Does that sound like you? If it does, we’re sorry to say you’re doing it all wrong. Contrary to what most people think, mouthwash should be the first step in your dental hygiene routine, followed by brushing. Once you’re done scrubbing away, spit out the toothpaste and fight the instinct to rinse your mouth. The fluoride in the toothpaste is still working away, remineralizing your teeth and protecting them from cavities.

Woman brushing teeth in the Photo by Phuong Tran on Unsplashmirror
Wait, what? No rinsing?Phuong Tran via Unsplash

Other tips and tricks

A good, ADA-approved, toothbrush should last three or, at a stretch, four months. If the bristles are visibly worn down, you’ve waited too long. Change yours regularly.

Unless you’re traveling, you should store your brush without a plastic cover, in a standing position, and let it air-dry between uses. This will prevent the proliferation of bacteria.

In addition to brushing your teeth twice a day, you should clean between them once a day. Interdental brushes are superior to flossing but both work to reduce plaque and stuff caught between your teeth. If you don’t have enough of a gap to use an interdental brush, go with floss. Otherwise, the brush is better. Just make sure to hit every gap.

Your teeth are for life. Look after them well, or it’ll come back to bite you.