With so many exotic diseases floating around these days, it’s only natural to wonder if your toothbrush is harboring bacteria. Maria Lopez Howell, a dentist and spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, comes clean.
Once a toothbrush turns furry, it’s less effective at removing plaque.
Common sense suggests when a toothbrush starts to look frayed and worn, it is time to invest in a new one. But, says Dr. Howell, a clinical professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Dental School, that may be too late. “Don’t wait until your toothbrush is furry to toss it out,” she says. As bristles wear down, they lose their effectiveness, and won’t scrape off plaque and calculus from the teeth and gum line easily.
Dr. Howell recommends replacing the brush every three to four months as a guideline. “I like to mark my new brushes with a date,” she says. On the flip side, if your brush isn’t looking used in four months, you may not be brushing long enough. Two minutes is the recommended time for a thorough cleaning and for fluoride uptake by enamel. Children, who seem to abuse these oral tools, may need their brushes changed more frequently.
Even an old fuzzy toothbrush won’t be a nesting ground for infectious bugs. Studies from the ADA haven’t shown evidence to support that a toothbrush can harbor harmful germs and reinfect a person, even after he or she has suffered a severe cold or flu. According to ADA studies, a toothbrush can carry germs from the moment it comes out of the package. But, says Dr. Howell, “Bacteria is a part of our lives,” and we have natural mechanisms to fight them, including enzymes in our mouths.
To Disinfect or Not to Disinfect
Some people heat a brush every now and then to kill lingering germs. But boiling water can destroy the bristles, as will putting a toothbrush in the microwave or dishwasher.
Boiling a brush is a no-no.
“People think that something hot will make something cleaner, but in this case, nice straight bristles will be most effective in cleaning the teeth and gums, not warped ones,” she says. As long as you rinse the toothpaste off and let the brush air dry, it will be clean. “Don’t cover it with a cap, which can maintain a moist environment and potentially breed bacteria, until it’s bone dry.” And don’t bother with products that claim to kill germs on your brush. No toothbrush-cleaning product has been shown to be fully sterilizing, according to the ADA.
The Right Fit
Dr. Howell jokes that the toothbrush area of the drugstore has been called the “aisle of confusion” among some of her fellow dental professionals. Ultimately, a good new toothbrush has the ADA seal of approval, it is soft, and it fits your preference. “Electric or with lines that show that it’s time to change your brush—it doesn’t matter, as long as you feel comfortable enough to brush properly with it,” says Dr. Howell.
Semiannual checkups with your dentist will confirm if you’re brushing properly. And often will provide you with two of the four toothbrushes you should be using each year, free.
—Heidi Mitchell WSJ
Did you know that taking good care of your teeth and gums can not only add years to your life, but also lowers risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes—and even memory-robbing disorders like Alzheimer’s disease? A new study of nearly 5,000 older adults found that those who brushed their teeth less than once a day were up to 65 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who brushed daily.
And here’s even more motivation to brush and floss: A new CDC study reports that nearly 65 million Americans—one out every two adults ages 30 and older—have gum disease, a far higher rate than has previously been reported. That’s dangerous, since a 2012 American Heart Association scientific statement reports that periodontal (gum) disease is a strong, independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and stroke).
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A Surprising Dental Controversy
What’s the best way to keep your teeth and gums healthy? While everyone agrees that brushing at least twice a day is crucial, there’s hot debate online right now about whether it’s preferable to floss before you brush (as I do) or afterwards. Here’s a look at surprising flossing recommendations from five leading dentists:
“I’ve always advised patients to floss before they brush to break up and remove the plaque matrix between the teeth before going in with the toothbrush to sweep away the bacteria and debris they’ve dislodged with flossing.”–Mark Barry, DDS, associate dean for clinical affairs and professor, division of oral medicine, Medical University of South Carolina.
“It makes more sense, particularly for kids, to floss after brushing so you can see what you’ve missed with the toothbrush. Also, if you floss first, debris might get pushed back between the gums when you brush. It’s also important to use the right flossing technique: make a C-shape with the floss and wrap it around each tooth to clean the surface, rather than just snapping the floss up and down, which doesn’t clean the structures properly.”–Mary Hayes, DDS, American Dental Association spokesperson.
“It doesn’t matter whether you floss first or brush first, because you are cleaning different surfaces of the teeth. That’s why flossing is crucial: It’s the only way to clean between the teeth, since a toothbrush can’t reach these crevices.”–Ruchi Sahala, DDS, American Dental Association spokesperson and general dentist in Freemont, CA
“The biggest thing is to remember to brush twice a day and floss once, spending several minutes removing plaque and debris between the teeth. It takes 24 to 48 hours for oral bacteria to organize into plaque, so as long as you dislodge the plaque at least once a day by flossing, you’re protecting your oral health.”–Ron Burakoff, DDM, MPH, DMD, MPH, Chair & Professor, Department of Dental Medicine, Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine
“Either order is OK. My recommendation is to floss at night, before you go to bed. When you’re sleeping, you produce less saliva to clean your teeth and gums, so oral bacteria are free to do more damage. Therefore, it’s important to brush, floss and scrape your tongue every night to get rid of bacteria and go to bed with your mouth as clean as possible.”–Ronald M. Goodlin, DDS, President, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry
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What’s the Bottom Line on Flossing?
The American Dental Association reports brushing or flossing first are both fine, as long as you do a thorough job. However, the ADA adds that a benefit of flossing first is that fluoride from toothpaste is more likely to reach between your teeth when you brush, which may help reduce cavities.
As all of the dentists interviewed for this article agree, flossing once a day is crucial to avoid having the film of bacteria between the teeth harden into plaque and then tartar, a hard mineral deposit that can cause gums to become swollen and inflamed, leading to the earliest stage of gum disease: gingivitis.
For more tips on flossing—including a how-to video from the ADA—click here.
Combat Cavities By Re-Growing Your Decaying Teeth
A team of researchers at the University of Leeds’ School of Chemistry is developing a pain-free method to combat cavities.
The technique uses a fluid called P 11-4 that has a fiber-like peptide. When the fluid is applied to a damaged tooth, it fills the tooth’s cavities and forms a gel matrix that attracts calcium.
Slowly, this matrix will rebuild the damaged part of the tooth. Best of all, there’s no Novocaine, no drilling involved.
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