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Dental care and teeth cleaning

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Brush and floss your teeth and gums twice daily. See your dentist every 6 months.
  • Drink plain water throughout the day and avoid soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice.
  • Never use your teeth as ‘tools’ for opening packets. This can cause teeth to break and crack.
  • Limit your intake of coffee and tea. Swish your mouth with water afterwards to avoid staining.
  • Healthy oral health habits start in childhood. Parents influence positive dental care behaviours.

Most of us learn when we are children that cleaning our teeth helps prevent tooth decay. However, toothbrushing is only one way to keep healthy teeth and reduce the risk of several dental problems. Research has shown that a healthy mouth is important to support overall health and wellbeing. Dedicating a small amount of time to looking after your teeth can have significant, life-long benefits.

Why is it important to keep teeth clean and healthy?

Tooth enamel does not regenerate once it decays. The only solution is to remove and treat the decay and restore the affected teeth. Fillings, crowns, veneers and bridgework are all restorative strategies to mend broken, decayed or missing teeth. Once a tooth decays, it is never as strong as it once was. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to prevent tooth decay from occurring.

How can I keep my teeth healthy?

The first step is to prioritise your oral health. Brushing and flossing twice each day, using a fluoridated toothpaste, and seeing your dentist every 6 months, will help to prevent cavities from forming. Limited snacking between meals will help your saliva to neutralise acids and support your oral health.

Infographic explaining how to prioritise your oral health: Brush and floss twice each day, Use a fluoridated toothpaste, Replace your toothbrush every 3 months, Eat a healthy diet which is low in sugar and See your dentist every 6 months.
Steps on how to prioritise your oral health.

How often should I brush my teeth?

Brush twice each day, preferably in the morning after breakfast and before going to bed at night. Ideally, wait around 30 minutes after eating and drinking to brush your teeth.

Use a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste. Tilt your toothbrush to a 45-degree angle so that you brush your gums as well. Brush your teeth gently in circles and make sure you brush the inside, outside and the chewing surfaces of your teeth. Spit out the toothpaste, don’t swallow it and avoid rinsing — this gives the fluoride more time to strengthen your teeth.

Aim to eat a healthy diet which is low in sugar. Sweets, soft drinks, biscuits and cereals are common sources of sugar. Remember that some food may contain sugar even though you can’t taste sugar.

What are the risks of not brushing?

Dental diseases don’t just lead to cavities (holes). Gingivitis (gum disease), halitosis (bad breath), tooth loss, diabetes, premature labour, oral cancer and a range of chronic diseases are all linked to poor oral health. Dental care can be expensive, particularly when fillings and restorations are necessary. Preventing decay in the first place can avoid painful and often costly repairs.

The cycle of decay starts when bacteria feed on food particles, especially sugar, which can be left on the teeth. Acid forms as a result, dissolving the protective enamel coating of the teeth. If decay isn’t detected early, it advances, causing a small hole to become larger. Left untreated, decay can extend into the inner portions of the tooth and the dental pulp. This can lead to a tooth abscess forming.

What is flossing?

Use floss or interdental brushes to clean the spaces your toothbrush can’t reach. Food left in between the gums and teeth can cause inflammation and changes to the way gum tissue attaches to teeth and bone. There are a range of flossing options — traditional waxed floss, flossettes or flossers — a type of handle with floss stretched between two ends — and flossing devices, which use air and/or water to aid removal of food particles.

How often should I floss?

Floss twice each day before brushing your teeth.

  1. Pull off about 40-50cm of floss and wind around your middle finger. Leave 5cm to work with. Grip the floss firmly with your index fingers and thumbs and pull it tight as you guide the floss between your upper teeth.
  2. Gently curve the floss around each tooth and slide below the gum line. Slide the floss gently up and down a few times to remove plaque and food from between your teeth. Repeat with all of your upper teeth.
  3. Use the same flossing action on your lower teeth. Take your time when sliding the floss between your teeth and avoid ‘snapping’ it against your gums.

What is gum disease and periodontitis?

When plaque builds up on the teeth and along the gum line, bacteria cause gingivitis, which makes the gums become red and inflamed. Bleeding gums when brushing, flossing and eating are a sign of gum disease. With dental treatment and careful attention to oral hygiene, early gum disease can be reversed. However, when the inflammation extends to the supportive structures which surround and support the teeth, periodontitis, an advanced form of gum disease can develop. Bone and tooth loss is a common result. Smoking and unstable diabetes are risk factors for periodontitis.

How does diabetes impact on oral health?

People living with diabetes are at a greater risk of developing periodontitis, especially when their blood glucose levels are not well managed over the long term. This risk decreases when glucose levels are consistently in range. People living with diabetes who are stable and managing well have the same risk of developing periodontitis as people who don’t have diabetes. Other mouth conditions such as altered taste, slow healing as well as tooth decay are more common in diabetes.

How do I look after my baby and children's teeth?

Take your child to see the dentist for the first time when they have their first tooth or when they turn one — whichever comes first. For babies, use a soft moist cloth to wipe gums. Start brushing their teeth with water only as soon as their first tooth erupts. Toddlers’ teeth can be brushed twice a day using a soft children’s toothbrush and a mild fluoride children’s toothpaste. Children over 6 years should continue to brush twice a day with a mild children’s toothpaste and floss any teeth that touch each other. Children over 6 years can use adult-strength fluoride toothpaste and brush and floss twice a day. They only need to use a small amount of toothpaste — the size of a pea. They don’t need to rinse; they only need to spit out excess toothpaste.

What happens to my teeth as I age?

Caring for our teeth and gums has a direct influence on being able to retain our teeth as we age, though inevitably our teeth and gums will change as a result of wear and tear. Gum recession, tooth erosion and loss are common conditions with advancing age. Healthy, pink and firm gums reduce the risk of tooth and bone loss. Daily brushing, flossing and regular dental check-ups help to maintain oral health throughout your life.

Manual or electric toothbrush — which one is better?

The ideal manual toothbrush has a small head and soft bristles. Replace your toothbrush every three months, or once it looks worn, to maintain its effectiveness and avoid gum damage.

Some people find that using an electric toothbrush is easier to use than a manual toothbrush and does a more thorough job of cleaning their teeth and gums. Inbuilt timers, synchronized phone apps and alarms can all serve as prompts for correct use.

However, the way you use your toothbrush is just as important as the type you have. Thorough cleaning with a fluoridated toothpaste for 2 minutes at least twice each day, reduces the risk of tooth decay.

What kind of toothpaste should I use?

Most toothpastes contain fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral. Brushing with fluoridated toothpaste and drinking fluoridated tap water helps to protect teeth against decay. In addition to the usual ingredients (gentle abrasives, flavours and fluoride) some toothpastes are designed for specific needs.

Toothpastes with higher levels of fluoride and desensitising and whitening agents can be very effective if they’re needed. At-home whitening kits do not contain the same concentration of bleaching agents which dentists use. Dentists can recommend treatment for people who wish to whiten stained or discoloured teeth.

Should I use mouthwash?

Some people like to use mouthwash because they feel this has a freshening effect on their mouth and breath. However, most people don’t need mouthwash, especially if they have good oral health. Speak with your dentist about the potential risks of using mouthwash to ‘mask’ bad breath and the effect of alcohol-based mouthwashes on healthy oral bacteria.

When should I see my dentist?

See your dentist every 6 months, or as often as recommended. Regular check-ups help with early detection of decay and other problems. This can avoid painful and costly restorations. See your dentist immediately if you have toothache, facial swelling, sensitivity with eating and drinking or trauma to your teeth.

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How will my dentist clean my teeth?

Your dentist will use professional equipment to remove tartar and plaque build-up around and in-between your teeth. No matter how careful your brushing, plaque can only be removed by a dentist. Numbing gel can be used to reduce sensitivity. Your teeth will be polished and a fluoride treatment applied. If your dentist detects any concerns, they may take an X-ray of your teeth and discuss a treatment plan.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2021

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