How to clean your teeth WITHOUT a toothbrush?
- Up to 47 per cent of the population has moderate to severe gum disease
- Use disclosing tablets to test how well you are cleaning your teeth
- Rinsing your mouth with water after brushing, can lead to tooth decay
- It’s best to brush before — rather than after — eating, including breakfast
Looking after your teeth isn’t just about preserving your smile. Increasingly, evidence suggests it’s vital for all-round health, too.
Last week, research published in the journal Immunity suggested a type of bacteria that causes gum disease could make you more vulnerable to cancer.
Scientists found the bacteria attached itself to the parts of the immune system responsible for attacking cancer cells, interfering with their protective role.
The bad news is that up to 47 per cent of the population has moderate to severe gum disease, according to the Adult Dental Health Survey.
The good news is there are simple tricks to protect your teeth. We spoke to dental hygienists to discover the tips they use themselves…
SNACK ON CHEESE, NOT FRUIT
Having a piece of fruit mid-morning might seem a healthy habit, but snacking, particularly on sugary foods, can wreck your teeth.
Bacteria feed on sugars on the tooth’s surface to produce acid, which can weaken the enamel and deplete minerals such as calcium, leading to cavities.
The body’s natural defence against this is saliva, which neutralises the pH in the mouth, re-mineralising the tooth after eating — a process that takes about 40 minutes.
Constant grazing doesn’t give the body the chance to repair the damage,’ says Michaela ONeill, president of the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy.
Even a cup of tea every hour could be harmful if you take sugar in it.
‘Stick to three or four meals a day and keep your sugar consumption for mealtimes, to reduce the number of acid attacks,’ she says.
If you must snack, fatty foods aren’t as damaging to the teeth as sugary ones, so choose hummus, nuts or cheese instead.
In fact, cheese increases saliva, which neutralises acid, says ONeill.
Avoid hard sweets — sucking on them means your teeth are sitting in an acidic bath — and fizzy drinks.
If you do have one, drink it through a straw, so the citric acid has no direct contact with your teeth.
CHECK PLAQUE WITH A WEEKLY DIY TEST
Use disclosing tablets a few times a week to test how well you are cleaning your teeth, says dental hygienist Claire O’Grady, from London Smiling Dental Group.
These are chewable tablets that show up the plaque — a sticky, transparent film of bacteria — in a coloured stain on your teeth after cleaning to illustrate where your brushing and flossing has missed.
The idea is that you then brush your teeth again to clean the areas that still have plaque.
If plaque builds up for longer than two weeks, gums can become swollen, irritated and bleed, and can ultimately cause tooth decay and gum disease, says O’Grady.
Disclosing tablets are available from dental practices, pharmacies and some supermarkets.
NEVER RINSE AFTER CLEANING
Many of us rinse our mouths with water after brushing, but this can actually lead to tooth decay, says ONeill, who is also a practising hygienist in Belfast.
‘The point of using a fluoride toothpaste is to let the residue sit on the surface of the teeth,’ she says. Fluoride strengthens the tooth’s surface, so it’s more resistant to acid from food.
‘Brush your teeth until they are clean, then spit out the toothpaste and leave the residue on the teeth rather than rinsing it away with water,’ says ONeill.
STRAWBERRIES WILL WHITEN YOUR TEETH
Strawberries can improve the appearance of your smile. Studies have shown that they have a gentle whitening effect on teeth, says O’Grady.
They contain malic acid, which has been found to buff stains from the teeth.
Keep them to mealtimes, though, and don’t over-indulge, as advice about snacking on fruit still applies.
But beware of eating too many dark berries such as blueberries and cherries, as these, along with drinks such as tea, coffee and red wine, can stain your teeth.
FLOSS EVERY DAY TO KILL BACTERIA
Everyone should use floss or use interdental brushes between the teeth once a day — this is not just to clear out food debris, but to get rid of the bacteria that can cause dental disease.
‘Bacteria are microscopic and can get into any space,’ says ONeill. Flossing helps disrupt biofilm (the gluey mass of bacteria).
DON’T BRUSH FOR AN HOUR AFTER WINE
People often brush their teeth immediately after drinking red wine to avoid stains, but this can be damaging, says Christina Chatfield, a hygienist and owner of the Dental Health Spa in Brighton and spokeswoman for the British Dental Health Foundation.
‘Wine is acidic, so it causes enamel to soften, and brushing while teeth are in that weakened state can wear them away,’ she says.
Instead, wait an hour before brushing. For the same reason, it’s best to brush before — rather than after — eating, including breakfast.
‘If you don’t brush before breakfast, it means bacteria on the teeth that haven’t been removed by brushing will react with sugar from food to make acid and dissolve the teeth.
‘People think brushing and cleaning is about getting rid of remnants of food, but it’s about reducing bacteria levels.’
Most important is to brush your teeth before bed.
‘If there are high levels of bacteria in the mouth then, they can multiply throughout the night.’
…AND DON’T PRESS TOO HARD
Brushing your teeth the wrong way can do more harm than good.
‘A lot of people have receding gums because they scrub their teeth vigorously, mistakenly thinking it’s the best way to clean them,’ says ONeill.
Brushing your teeth the wrong way can do more harm than good. It is important to clean the gums without pushing on them too hard
Receding gums can cause the teeth to become more sensitive, because nerves become exposed, and to look long and unsightly.
She says it is important to clean the gums without pushing on them too hard.
‘Even with electric brushes, you can brush too hard.’
People also incorrectly brush back and forth, which can wear away enamel and gum, instead of using a gentle circular motion to reach all the tooth and gum.
You should use a toothbrush with a medium-firm head, at a 45-degree angle where the gum and teeth meet, says O’Grady.
This angle will prevent damage to the gum as it follows the gum’s contour.
HOW TO STOP LOOKING LONG IN THE TOOTH
People tend to think that longer looking teeth is an inevitable part of getting old — but it’s often due to chronic gum disease.
Here, plaque builds up in the mouth over time, and the body responds by losing some of the bone holding the teeth in, so it’s not in direct contact with the bacteria.
However, as the bone disappears, the gum shrinks, too, so the tooth appears longer.
Bone loss can affect anyone, but is more commonly seen in older people and it can cause teeth to loosen and fall out, says ONeill.
‘People don’t feel it happening until their teeth start to feel loose — and by then it’s too late.’
Gum disease is linked with numerous health problems, including heart disease and respiratory disease, so cleaning teeth properly can prevent these.
WHY DIABETICS MUST BE EXTRA CAREFUL
Emerging research is showing that diabetes and gum disease are strongly linked.
So if you have diabetes, you need to be extra vigilant with your dental health.
Diabetic patients are more likely to develop gum disease, which in turn can increase blood sugar and diabetic complications.
Those with uncontrolled diabetes are especially at risk.
‘People with diabetes should see a hygienist regularly,’ says ONeill.
YES, YOU SHOULD BRUSH YOUR TONGUE
Clean all of your mouth — including the tongue, says O’Grady.
‘Not cleaning the tongue can cause a film of plaque to build up on it, which can lead to bad breath and gum disease because you are harbouring more bacteria.’
You can clean your tongue with a toothbrush or special tongue scraper — but don’t be too rough.
‘Anything too aggressive can take the surface off the tongue. You just need to dust the light film away.’
O’Grady adds that toothpaste isn’t necessary on the tongue, as it’s about removing bacteria.
BLEEDING GUMS? YOU MAY BE PREGNANT
Aside from dental health, hygienists can help spot what’s going on elsewhere in the body by looking in the mouth.
Bleeding gums can suggest they are reacting to plaque in the mouth, for example — this is often linked with hormones and can occur during pregnancy.
In rare cases, bleeding gums can suggest leukaemia or liver disease.
Meanwhile, mouth ulcers can be a sign of iron and B vitamin deficiencies, while dry mouth can be a side-effect of medication.
PS: A FACE FLANNEL CAN COME IN HANDY
Ever cleaned your teeth with your finger when you’ve forgotten your toothbrush?
A better option is using a clean face flannel placed over your finger — ideally with toothpaste on it, says ONeill.
‘A face cloth has a rougher surface than a finger, so it helps to remove plaque, which is sticky.’
If stuck without toothpaste, a mouthwash with fluoride will help to remove some bacteria, though it won’t physically remove plaque.