Don’t brush your teeth too hard

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It turns out you can brush your teeth too hard. I learned this the hard way, and so have a number of people I know. It’s interesting how dentists don’t seem to mention this to people until the damage is done – very expensive damage that you then have to pay them to fix. Hmm. Let’s all wonder about that for a moment.

Don't brush your teeth too hard

The right way to brush your teeth

If you’re like me, and you spent most of your life scrubbing away forcefully at your teeth to make sure no germ survived the process, stop now. This can push back your gums and expose the roots of your teeth, leading to tooth sensitivity and possibly even the need for gum surgery. Some people’s gums are thicker than others, and thicker gums can hold up to this kind of punishment better than thin ones. But if you have thin gums, this form of brushing can really damage them before you’re forty, as I learned firsthand.

There are a couple of correct ways to brush your teeth. In my experience, and on the advice of several dentists, the best way by far involves using an electric toothbrush. It doesn’t need to cost more than about $5, and you should ignore any claims they make about whitening or whatever, because you just need a soft-bristled toothbrush that moves at a higher speed than you could do manually. Because the bristles are moving so vigorously, you can take the time to be really gentle with your movements. This lets you get your gums super clean without pushing on them with the toothbrush.

You can do the same thing with a manual toothbrush, but be aware it takes a good 2-3 minutes if not more.

  • The stroke. Forget circular strokes or side-to-side strokes. Turn the brush up at a forty-five degree angle and place it against your gums, so the outer edge of the brush is against your gums. Stroke downward over the tooth, slowly. You’re just using the edge of the brush, but because the bristles are moving to vigorously, you will get your teeth very clean, all the way up to the gum line, without putting any damaging pressure on the gums. You can also gently slide the brush horizontally over tooth surfaces.
  • Where to brush. Be absolutely sure to brush every surface of every tooth. That means the backs and fronts, plus the bottoms/tops of your molars. Also brush the backs of your back molars. Brush your tongue to remove some of the bacteria that grows on it and then jumps on your teeth later. (You can also use a tongue scraper for this.)
  • How often. Various studies contradict each other, but my dentists still recommend you brush at least twice a day. If you seem to develop tartar faster than some people (something like 10% of people do – I’m one of them), you may need to brush after each and every meal. Something else that’s helped me greatly is buying those little plastic toothpicks and “picking” my teeth after every meal and snack. There’s a huge variety of these products, and you can browse them here: there are little skinny brushes, little sticks with floss, interestingly-shaped wooden toothpicks and more. What works for you depends on much room you have between your teeth.
  • Flossing. Even if you use picks after meals, it’s still wise to floss at least once a day. The trick with floss is to sort of wrap it around the side of each tooth as best you can, and then work it up and down. This cleans a good chunk of the surface that’s likely to accumulate food bits.

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