9 Toothbrushing Mistakes – and How to Fix Them

By Lindsey Grant

WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Michael Friedman, DDS

Admit it – brushing your teeth is so second-nature you barely think about it. But doing it right is key for a healthy mouth. It can help you avoid problems like cavities and gum disease.

Sharpen your skills with these easy-to-follow tips:

  1. Choose the Right Tool

    Just any old toothbrush may not be the one for you. Think about the size of your mouth, says Richard H. Price, DMD, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. “If you are straining to open wide enough to let the brush in, the brush is probably too big,” he says.

    It should feel good in your mouth and in your hand, so you’ll use it often.

    Know your bristles, too. If they’re really stiff, they can hurt your gums. A soft brush is best.

    Electric or manual? “It’s an individual preference,” says Michael Sesemann, DDS.

    Price agrees. “It’s not the toothbrush, it’s the brusher.”

    Electric toothbrushes can make it easier to do a better job, especially if you have arthritis or other trouble with your, hands, arms, or shoulders.

  2. Give it Time

    Are you brushing enough? Twice a day is recommended, but Sesemann says three times a day is best.

    It should take at least 2 minutes each time. He says most of us fall short. He also suggests you divide your mouth into four sections and spend 30 seconds on each. To make the time go faster, Sesemann says he watches TV while he brushes.

    Some electric toothbrushes have built-in-timers and can track how you’re using it by syncing to your smartphone.

  3. Don’t Overdo It

    Brushing more than three times a day might not be ideal, Sesemann says. That’s because too much can wear down your teeth’s outer shell, called enamel, and damage your gums.

    Also, “don’t bear down too hard,” he says. “Use a lighter touch.”

    If you use an electric brush, “you let the bristles do the work and just guide the toothbrush,” Price says.

    Be gentle. It doesn’t take a lot of force to remove plaque, he says.

  4. Perfect Your Technique

    Is your way the right way? Wide, side-to-side strokes can scrape your gum line, Sesemann says. Hold your brush at a 45 - degree angle to your gums, and make an up-and-down motion. Use short strokes.

    Brush outer and inner tooth surfaces, back molars, and your tongue.

    “Don’t forget about those hard-to-reach areas,” Sesemann says. If you aren’t thorough, plaque has time to sit in your mouth and cause damage.

  5. Switch Things Up

    Do you always begin in the same place? Dentists say most of us do.

    “Start in a different place so that you don’t get lazy,” Price says. By the time you get to the last area of your mouth, you may be bored. Stay aware of what you’re doing.

    “Keep track of where you are going and where you have been. Make it to all the surfaces,” Sesemann says.

  6. Pick Products Wisely

    The kind of toothpaste you use matters, Sesemann says. The ones that brighten or control tartar can be harsh. “An increase in whitening particles can be harmful and sand away tooth structure.”

    Go back to plain old fluoride toothpaste, he says. If you want to lighten your smile, you can always switch between whitening toothpaste and regular.

  7. Control Your Sour Tooth

    Energy drinks, diet sodas, and sour candies – even healthy things like apple juice, orange juice, and coffee have acid that can soften tooth enamel, Sesemann says.

    If you do go for that stuff, wait half an hour before you brush. That gives your saliva time to restore tooth enamel.

    “The mechanical action of brushing softened teeth is the perfect recipe for wearing away enamel,” Sesemann says.

  8. Avoid ‘Potty Mouth’

    Most of us store our brushes in the bathroom – not the cleanest place in the house.

    To keep yours tidy, stand it up in a holder. If you leave it on the counter, you could expose it to germs from your toilet or sink. And don’t let two brushes touch if they’re stored together.

    Let yours air dry – a moist brush is more likely to grow bacteria. Use a cover that lets air in and when you travel.

  9. Let It Go

    How old is your brush? You should get a new one every 3 to 4 months.

    Also, give it the eye test. “Once the bristles lose their normal flexibility and start to break apart, change your toothbrush,” Price says.

    Frayed or broken bristles won’t clean as well.

    If you can’t decide which toothbrush to buy, ask your dentist which kind is best.

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