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  • Writer's pictureKevin Lee

Back to Basics: Brushing for Beginners

How often should I brush my teeth? For how long? What toothbrush should I use? Does it even matter?

Good home care is fundamental to keeping your teeth clean and healthy. And it's so easy too, right? All I have to do is wave my toothbrush over my teeth, dragging it left and right like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, and I never have to see a Dentist! Well, I wish that were the case, but unfortunately it's not. Firstly, you have to do it for long enough.

At least 2 minutes.

I know, I know, your time is precious. And it is. Between work, chores, bills, kids and everything else we want to do, we have to get precious minutes from somewhere. A "quick brush" is usually where we make up that time. But the truth is, the longer you brush, the more plaque you remove and the less decay and gum issues you will have. To make matters worse, we often overestimate the amount of time we spend at the sink too, sometimes by a whole minute!

The reason why this is so important is how dental plaque works. Its a bacterial growth that sticks to your tooth surface, and those bacteria can react with food and your body to cause tooth decay, gum problems and is also associated with other health issues such as cardiovascular problems, type 2 diabetes and liver issues. Consistently getting rid of it stops it from causing these problems. Additionally, if you leave it for too long, it hardens into dental tartar, which is a pain for both you (literally) and your dentist (figuratively) to get off.

So how long do we need to brush for? Well, research has shown that 2 minutes is a good start, and as dentists we have be recommending that for years. However, newer evidence is starting to show that brushing for longer does remove more plaque. You want to be brushing your teeth at least twice a day for up to 4 minutes to get rid of all that nasty plaque on your teeth. This applies to kids and teens too.

Get your technique sorted.

That said, all the time in the world spent brushing doesn't matter if your technique is incorrect. Brushing your too hard, or with a brush that is hard, is usually associated with gum recession. If you're particularly zealous with your brushing, after wearing away your gums it might wear away your tooth, and you'll need a filling.

As its easier to show you how to brush, here's a video showing the best way to brush your teeth.

OK, now I know how to brush. Are electric toothbrushes better?

Sign points to yes... at least in the research. A major systematic review noted that 'powered' brushes removed significantly more plaque in both the short and long term than manual brushes. They are more efficient at removing plaque, and with the right technique, may not require more than 2 minutes of brushing. However, clinically, no major studies have been carried out to confirm this to date.

In reality, you can use either brush that works for you to remove plaque. Children often prefer electric brushes, which often work really well for keeping their teeth clean. For adults, a manual brush is fine but you'll have to use it for longer to get the same effect. If you have difficulty using manual brushes, such as if you have arthritis, electric brushes may offer a better solution.

Just make sure you replace your brush when the bristles get worn and frayed, usually every 3 months.

What about U-shaped toothbrushes? Are they good?

Alright, I take back what I said about 'use what works for you'.

The exception to what I've mentioned above are the new U-shaped brushes that have been showing up on social media recently. Unfortunately, they just don't clean teeth, and are about as effective as not brushing your teeth. I personally would not spend money on them.

So what toothpaste should I be using? And what about Natural toothpastes?

Today, we have a plethora of options for what toothpaste we should put our brushes. We've known for a long time that fluoride containing toothpastes are very good at reducing our risk of dental decay, in adults and children. However, now we've seen new toothpastes appear on the market, containing novel ingredients like charcoal, baking soda, clay and even wasabi. Are these any good?

The jury is still out on a lot of them as they are often under-studied and there is little evidence for their efficacy. Toothpastes with charcoal, baking soda and salt are often quite abrasive, and while they help remove plaque, they also take some of your tooth with it. Other products like cinnamon containing toothpastes are antimicrobial, but can cause 'cinnamon burn' in your mouth if they are too concentrated. Many of them are also not certified by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australia's equivalent of the FDA. They can also be more expensive than regular toothpaste.

Ultimately, the most important part of toothbrushing is toothbrushing itself, not the toothpaste. A fluoride containing toothpaste will give you added protection against tooth decay, but make sure you're brushing twice a day first.

Don't brush with your left hand.

Because using your toothbrush is better. Jokes aside, having clean, healthy teeth is simple, but requires a little commitment. You just have to brush gently twice a day, for at least 2 minutes with a fluoride containing toothpaste. Your teeth will love you for it. Til' next time.

Dr Kevin Lee

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