Daily brushing is perhaps the foundation of great oral hygiene. But proper brushing technique is just as important. It removes food particles and plaque, which can cause cavities, infections, gum disease, and more. Unfortunately, many adults adopt an improper brushing schedule or technique, and their teeth suffer for it.
Not you. You’ve got drive, dedication, and this guide, which will lay out everything you need to know about brushing your teeth the right way.
Table of Contents
The Benefits of Proper Brushing
When you brush, the toothbrush’s bristles sweep away plaque and food particles on and around your teeth, while the mildly abrasive toothpaste polishes their surfaces. That’s why your teeth should feel smooth after you finish.
If you let plaque hang around by brushing improperly—or not at all—it can erode your enamel and eventually cause cavities, gingivitis, infections, and if you let it go long enough, tooth loss. When it’s left to flourish, gingivitis can harden into tartar, a calcified deposit that typically requires a professional cleaning to remove.
Brushing regularly washes plaque away before it has time to harden or cause more serious issues. That doesn’t mean you’ll avoid all dental complications just by brushing, but it significantly reduces your chances.
Choosing a Toothbrush
Perusing the oral hygiene aisle at any pharmacy or retail store can be intimidating. While most toothbrushes can be effective as long as you’re consistent with your brushing, you still want to pick one that’s comfortable, easy to use, and within your price range.
First, decide whether you want a manual or electric toothbrush. Both are completely effective if you use them properly, although some studies have shown that electric ones are better at removing plaque and preventing gum disease. However, while manual brushes rarely cost more than $10, electric ones can cost as much as $300.
Most importantly, you want a brush that fits your mouth well, so pay attention to their head and bristle size. Make sure to get the correct bristle stiffness, too. They come in soft, medium, and hard, but dentists recommend soft bristles for most people, since hard ones can erode the enamel if you use too much pressure. Beyond that, it comes down to your budget and preferences.
Choosing a Toothpaste
Like toothbrushes, there are a lot of toothpaste choices on the market, and they make a lot of bold claims. However, most toothpastes include:
- Abrasive agents to help remove plaque and particles.
- Glycerol or a similar moisture retaining substance to keep the toothpaste from drying out.
- Flavoring like artificial sweeteners, mint, or cinnamon.
- Thickeners to give it the right consistency and texture.
- Detergents that make it foam.
The most important ingredient to look for is fluoride, though. This naturally occurring mineral protects your teeth from the acid created when oral bacteria eat sugars and starches, which can damage enamel. So, it’s crucial to maintaining a healthy smile.
If you’re looking for a brighter smile, you might go with a whitening toothpaste. They won’t drastically brighten your smile like a professional treatment would, but they can slightly whiten your teeth over a few weeks of consistent use. And if you have sensitive teeth, look for a toothpaste specially formulated for sensitivity.
Proper Brushing Technique
But the best toothbrush and toothpaste in the world won’t make a difference if you don’t brush your teeth the right way. Believe it or not, proper brushing technique is more than simply moving the bristles around on your teeth.
If you have a manual toothbrush, hold it at a 45-degree angle to the gums and move it back and forth over the front, back, and chewing surfaces of your teeth, spending 30 seconds on each quadrant of your mouth. Scrub each tooth carefully, but do it gently, since brushing too hard can erode your enamel.
Using an electric toothbrush follows some of the same principles. Just like you would with a manual one, hold it at a 45-degree angle, but because it does the brushing motion for you, there’s no need to scrub the bristles against your teeth or gum line. Simply move the brush from one tooth to the next, making sure to get the outer, inner, and chewing surfaces.
Brushing With Braces
Braces can present some oral hygiene challenges, but you can still keep your teeth clean and healthy throughout your treatment with a little extra attention. If you have elastics, remove them before you start and set them aside. Then, brush like you would normally, but remember: brackets and wires give plaque more places to stick, so brush around them carefully, hitting them from every angle.
Brushing With Clear Aligners
If you have clear aligners, you’ll hardly have to change your brushing routine. Just remove your aligners, then brush your teeth like normal. Just make sure to brush your aligners with water before replacing them.
How Long and How Often to Brush
The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends brushing twice per day for two minutes each time. Typically, that means once in the morning and once at night before you go to bed. This schedule ensures that you’re removing plaque before it hardens or affects your teeth, and studies consistently show that people who brush fewer than twice a day are more susceptible to tooth decay.
Brushing for two minutes might seem like forever if you’re late to work or tired at night, but it’s not an arbitrary time. A study from the Journal of Dental Hygiene showed that brushing for two minutes removed 26% more plaque than brushing for 45 seconds. Over days and weeks of inadequate brushing, that leftover plaque can accumulate and increase your risk of cavities, gingivitis, bad breath, and other oral health issues.
Some people prefer to brush their teeth three times per day, once after each meal. That’s also a good practice, especially if you have braces, since they catch food particles and bacteria easier. However, regularly brushing more than three times in a day puts you at risk of wearing down your enamel, so stick to 2–3 times a day.
Proper Flossing Technique
Brushing your teeth is essential, but it can’t often clean between your teeth, so don’t forget to floss either. Flossing removes hard-to-reach plaque from between your teeth and near the gum line, which can cause cavities, gingivitis, and bad breath. Dentists recommend flossing once per day — typically before bedtime — or after each meal if you frequently get food stuck between your teeth.
To start, take 18–24 inches of floss and wrap the ends around your middle fingers until you’ve got just 1.5–2 inches left. Pull it taut with your thumbs and index fingers, then you’re ready to floss. However, it’s not as simple as sliding it in and out of each gap. Once you’ve got the floss between two teeth, pull it into a C shape around one side and move it up and down. Then, move to the opposite side, being careful not to run it into your gums. Repeat this process with each gap.
Single-use floss picks (also called flossers), have become popular because they make it easier to reach your back teeth and they don’t require as much manual dexterity. However, they’re not as effective as traditional floss, since you’re using the same small piece of floss for every tooth, which can redistribute bacteria. Still, using floss picks is much better than not flossing at all.
Flossing is more complicated if you have braces, since the wires prevent you from sliding the floss between your teeth. Instead, you’ll need to thread it underneath the wire, then floss like you normally would, and repeat this threading for each pair of teeth. Your orthodontist might recommend or provide floss threaders — small tools that help you thread your floss more easily. A Waterpik might also help, since they use water to clean between your teeth, so there’s no threading involved.
Cleaning and Replacing Your Toothbrush
Removing bacteria from your teeth is important, but so is removing it from your toothbrush. Keep your brush upright on its stand (if it came with one) or in a toothbrush holder, out in the open air so it can dry completely. Don’t put it in a drawer, cabinet, or closed container, where it will stay damp, allowing bacteria to survive. You also shouldn’t keep it right next to the toilet, if possible, since flushing sends microscopic particles into the air, and they can settle on your brush.
If you thoroughly rinse your toothbrush in hot water after each use, then let it dry completely, most bacteria won’t survive. But if you want to take additional measures, you can give it a few-minute (no longer than 15) soak in mouthwash or a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution.
The American Dental Association recommends replacing your manual toothbrush or electric toothbrush head every 3–4 months. However, yours might wear out faster than that, depending on your brushing habits. Fortunately, certain signs are dead giveaways that it’s time to replace your brush.
The most common is frayed bristles. Your brush’s bristles work hard to sweep away plaque and food particles, and over weeks and months, they can wear down. Eventually, they’ll fray and bend, which makes them significantly less effective. If you notice your brush’s bristles flaring outward, it’s time for a replacement. You should also either disinfect or replace your toothbrush if it smells bad, since that could indicate an accumulation of bacteria. Do the same if you’ve been sick, since germs from the illness can hide in the bristles.
Your oral hygiene hinges on consistent and effective brushing, which fends off tartar, cavities, gum disease, and other unpleasant conditions. But the good news, it’s an easy routine to establish. Just follow these guidelines, you’ll keep your brush, your mouth, and your pearly whites happy.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the best way to brush your teeth?
Hold your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to the gums and move it back and forth over the front, back, and chewing surfaces of your teeth, spending 30 seconds on each quadrant of your mouth for a total of two minutes. If you’re using an electric toothbrush, it will do the brushing motion for you, so simply move it over each surface, spending 30 seconds in each quadrant.
How do I choose the right toothbrush?
Your budget is an important factor, since electric toothbrushes can range from $10 to around $300, and manual ones are much less expensive. But you should also consider the size of the head and bristle firmness as well, since comfort is key and using the wrong bristle type can harm your enamel.
If you want an electric toothbrush, think about which brushing motion—rotation or back-and-forth—is more comfortable for you, as well as the features you want. Some have multiple brushing modes and some have a pressure sensor that warns you if you’re brushing too hard. If you’re struggling to decide, you can always ask your dentist or orthodontist for their recommendation.
Can you brush too hard?
Yes! Brushing aggressively might feel like the only way to effectively clean your teeth, but it can actually wear away your enamel over time, leaving you more prone to tooth decay and gum recession. If you notice tooth sensitivity, receding gums, or severe toothbrush wear, you might need to brush gentler.
Is it better to have hard or soft bristles?
Dental professionals recommend soft-bristled toothbrushes for most people. Medium and hard bristles are great for removing plaque and food particles, but they can also harm the enamel or gums, especially if you brush too hard. Soft bristles still give you an excellent clean, without the added risk. Ask your dentist if you’re unsure which is the best option for you.
What happens if you don’t replace your toothbrush?
If you don’t replace your toothbrush often enough (or at all), its bristles will fray and lose their effectiveness. That leaves more plaque and food particles on your teeth, which can cause things like decay, gingivitis, and bad breath.
What is the average lifespan of a toothbrush?
Around 3–4 months, so that’s how often you should typically replace them. However, if you don’t care for it, use it, or store it properly, yours might not last that long.
Where should I keep my toothbrush?
Whenever you’re not using your toothbrush, store it in an upright toothbrush holder away from other brushes. Place your holder out in the open, where it can air dry, and away from the toilet if possible.
What’s the best way to keep a toothbrush clean?
Rinsing it thoroughly with hot water and rubbing the bristles with your thumb after each cleaning, then letting it air dry, is effective for most people. But if you want to take it even further, you can use antiseptic mouthwash, denture cleaner, UV sanitizers, or a hydrogen peroxide solution (just make sure you’re using the correct ratio). Follow the directions carefully with any cleaner, and only soak it in mouthwash or the peroxide solution for 15 minutes.