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How to Brush and Floss

Brushing and flossing correctly are two of the most effective ways to reduce and control bacterial plaque in the mouth. For most people, these two habits alone can keep the teeth and gums healthy for a lifetime. However, many of us were never taught exactly how to do it. Even those of us who know better have certainly been guilty of the cursory 30-second scrub across the front teeth once in a while. Unfortunately, that kind of brushing can easily turn into a habit, and as far as the health of your teeth and gums are concerned, the 30-second scrub might as well be not brushing at all.

Proper brushing and flossing techniques are simple, inexpensive, and ultimately not nearly as time-consuming, inconvenient, or costly as the problems they prevent. The techniques outlined below are ideal for every age. Children may need help developing the proper finger dexterity to brush and floss effectively at first, but it is still never too early to start teaching your kids good oral hygiene habits. Ideally, parents should supervise and help their child brush and floss until the child has developed good finger dexterity, usually around age 7 or 8.

How often should you clean your teeth?

Ideally, we would all brush and floss our teeth after each meal, and again after any sugary or highly acidic snack. For most of us, however, brushing and flossing that often simply isn't possible.

At a bare minimum, you should brush and floss at least twice a day:
•  Once in the morning, before you eat or have your morning coffee or tea
•  Once at night, just before you go to bed.

Bacteria begin feeding on sugar and acid within 30 seconds of ingestion. Cleaning your teeth before you eat or drink in the morning reduces the number of bacteria present when any sugar or acid hits the mouth, thus reducing the damage that can be done in the first place.

Limiting your intake of highly acidic or sugary foods will also go a long way in protecting your teeth and gums from disease. Bacteria love sugar and acid. That feeling of "sweater teeth" many of us have experienced after eating a lot of sugary food is actually bacteria multiplying at an increased rate due to all the sugar in your mouth. That "sweater" is a colony of plaque building on your teeth. Avoiding snacks that produce this effect in your mouth is the best thing you can do. However, if you experience a sensation that feels like "fuzzy teeth" or "sweater teeth" after any meal or snack, you should make the effort to try and brush and floss right away to clear away all the excess bacterial plaque before it can do any permanent damage.

Caring for your teeth should always be a mindful activity. Try not to brush or floss while watching TV or turning your attention to some other activity. The entire process of brushing and flossing takes less than 5 minutes, and your focused attention is what makes the difference in effectively improving the health of your mouth.

A Note About Bleeding

It is not unusual to experience mild bleeding and tenderness at the gumline when beginning to brush and floss correctly, especially if you have not done so for a while. Bleeding is a sign that bacterial infection, or gingivitis, is already present. But mild bleeding can often improve with better brushing and flossing alone.

However, if bleeding continues even with the techniques described here, you may need professional dental treatment to get the infection under control. Please contact your dentist immediately if you experience any of the following:
•  Significant, unrelenting bleeding.
•  Bleeding that does not improve with regular practice of these techniques.
•  Shooting pain or pain that lingers.
•  General inflammation or a swollen white bump on the gum.

Illustrated diagram of how to properly brush upper teeth


A toothbrush should more accurately be called a gum brush. Most of the damage and disease in the mouth begins in the places bacteria like to hide – between the teeth and under the gums. Brushing the surfaces of the teeth is important, but the majority of your time should be spent getting those bristles under the gums.

You should always use a soft-bristled toothbrush. Hard or medium bristles are not better for your teeth, and can be damaging to your gums and softer root surfaces that may be exposed through recession. Try to find a toothbrush with a small head. A compact size, or even a child's toothbrush, is much better than a large head when going after those hard-to-reach places in the corners of your mouth.

Illustrated diagram of how to properly brush lower teeth
1.  Place a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your brush and get the bristles slightly wet.
2.  Hold the head at a 45 degree angle from the teeth so that the bristles are pointing toward the gums.
3.  Move the brush in a circular motion, simultaneously brushing the teeth and massaging/sweeping the gums clear of plaque and food particles. You should be able to feel the bristles reaching under the gums.
4.  Repeat this circular stroke on the front and back sides of all the teeth.
5.  Finish with a back and forth scrub across the biting surfaces of your teeth to loosen and remove any food particles stuck in the grooves.
6.  Brushing should take no less than 2 minutes. Most people are in the habit of brushing their teeth for 30 seconds or less. In the beginning, try setting a timer for 2 minutes so you can get a feel for how long brushing should really take.

Illustrated diagram of how to properly floss upper teeth


With the wrong tools and technique, flossing can be awkward and time-consuming. It takes a little practice, but once you really understand how to floss effectively, it takes less time and effort than brushing.

Of all the places in the mouth where virulent bacteria can hide, grow, and even enter the blood stream – in between the gums is the most damaging. Flossing isn't so much about getting food particles out of those places, although that is important. Bacteria feed on the food we leave behind in our mouths. Removing that food is an important first step in controlling bacterial growth, but disrupting the bacterial colonies themselves is the next step. For the colonies that develop in the crevices between the teeth, brushing alone is not enough; floss is the most effective tool.

Illustrated diagram of how to properly floss lower teeth
1.  Remove a piece of floss about 18 inches long.
2.  Wind each end around your middle fingers, and pinch the floss between your thumbs and index fingers leaving 1 to 2 inches of floss between.
3.  Using your thumbs or fingers to guide the floss between the upper teeth, gently slide the floss between the teeth and up into the crevice between the gum and the tooth. Do not yank.
4.  Angle the floss so that it hugs the side of one tooth and gently slide it up under one side of the v-shaped gum until it reaches a natural stop. Bring the floss back down the side of the tooth until it clears the point of the gum, then angle it so that it hugs the side of the other tooth. Then slide it up under the other side of the v-shape of the gum.
5.  Repeat this same pattern around all your upper teeth, winding and unwinding a clean bit of floss to use between each tooth.
6.  Floss the lower teeth, this time using your index fingers to guide the floss into place.
7.  Do not save used floss for future use. Please discard.

Sometimes floss will remove plaque that is sticky or even smelly. This can be unpleasant, but please do not give up on the habit in order to avoid it. This sticky, smelly plaque is what causes all infection, gum disease, and decay in the mouth and must be removed. With time, regular flossing will significantly reduce and even eliminate the occurrence of sticky, smelly plaque.

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Dr. Martha Rich, DMD, 833 SW 11th Ave, Suite 405 Portland, OR 97205; (503) 228-6870;; 5/15/2024; Related Phrases: dentist Portland OR;