8 Ways You’ve Been Brushing Your Teeth All Wrong

Updated: Nov. 24, 2020

As far as difficult tasks go, brushing your teeth doesn't seem like one of them. After all, you've been doing it since you were little (we hope). And yet, it’s easier than you think to make tooth brushing mistakes, putting your oral hygiene—and your smile—at risk.

You’re not brushing your teeth for long enough

The American Dental Association recommends brushing for two minutes, but many people fall woefully short—and don’t even realize it. “Different studies have timed people brushing their teeth and asked them how long they thought they did it for,” says Ed Hewlett, DDS, a professor of restorative dentistry and associate dean for outreach and diversity at UCLA School of Dentistry in Los Angeles, CA. “Some people thought they’d brushed for a couple of minutes, but it can be less than half a minute. Our perception of how long we’re brushing is not very accurate.” To take out the guesswork, use an electric toothbrush that beeps when you’ve reached two minutes, or use a timer on your phone or an egg timer. Here are 10 rules for keeping your teeth white and healthy.

man brushing his teeth
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You’re brushing too hard

If you brush your teeth like you would scour a pan with baked-on food, you’re doing more harm than good. “When you press hard against your teeth and gums, you get a satisfying sensation that you’re really getting the teeth clean,” says Dr. Hewlett. “But it’s not making your teeth cleaner, and it can do harm.” The point of brushing is to remove plaque—a bacterial film—which is sticky but also soft, so you don’t need to go to town on your teeth to remove it. “Pushing too hard can overstress the gum tissue and cause it to recede, exposing part of the tooth’s root,” says Dr. Hewlett. “That area can become sensitive to hot and cold. The root is also more susceptible to cavities than the hard enamel part of the tooth.” Try one of these 11 home remedies for a toothache.

young woman brushing her teeth
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Your angle is off

Brushing straight across like you’re playing the violin isn’t the best way to brush your pearly whites. You want to hold the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle—upward for your top teeth and downward for your bottom teeth—so the bristles can sweep and clean under the gum line where plaque can hide. Gently brush your teeth in small circles, as if you’re drawing tiny “O’s” on them. The exception: If you have an electric sonic toothbrush, you don’t need to angle the brush to 45 degrees. “They’re designed to go straight on the tooth and you just hold it there for a few seconds,” says Sally Cram, DDS, a periodontist in Washington, D.C., and spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “You don’t have to make O’s or circles with a sonic brush.”

toothbrush bristles
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Your toothbrush bristles are too firm

If you’ve noticed on drug store runs that it’s getting harder to find “firm” and “medium” bristles, you’re not imagining things. Those bristles are often too harsh for your teeth and gums, so most dentists don’t recommend them. Instead, choose soft or ultra-soft bristles that can gently get down under the gum line. “Your gum is like a little turtleneck collar, and you need to get under that collar,” explains Dr. Cram. “Hard and medium brushes don’t do that and can actually abrade the gum.” (Here’s what you need to know about charcoal toothbrushes.)

putting toothpaste on toothbrush
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Your toothbrush head is too big

Your toothbrush should fit your mouth comfortably—and in most cases, smaller is the way to go. Unless you have a large mouth, compact brush heads do a better job of helping you access those hard-to-reach and hard-to-see molars, notes Dr. Cram. (This is what your dentist needs you to start doing differently right now.)

old toothbrush in cup
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You’ve had the same toothbrush since last year

Over time, bristles become splayed out, bent, and curved so when you angle your brush to 45 degrees, they no longer point in the right direction. The bristles become even softer and stop working as effectively. “Every three months, treat yourself to a new toothbrush,” says Dr. Hewlett.

woman flossing her teeth
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You don’t consider flossing mandatory

That lonely container of dental floss that’s collecting dust in your medicine cabinet? You’re not alone if you’ve forgotten about it (or purposely avoid it). “Brushing alone is not enough,” says Dr. Hewlett. “Toothbrushes reach a little between teeth, but they don’t remove all of the plaque there. That’s where flossing and other products come in.” Not a fan of flossing? Try an interdental cleaner, such as an electric flosser, a bristled dental pick, or wooden dental sticks, which are just as effective as flossing, according to Dr. Hewlett. “When you brush and floss together, even though it seems inconvenient or cumbersome, it’s the best return on investment because of the enormous amount of disease you can prevent,” says Dr. Hewlett. Here are 10 shocking diseases dentists can find first.

young woman brushing teeth in bathroom before bed
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You think it’s no big deal to skip brushing your teeth before bed now and then

Turns out, it is a big deal. Ninety-eight percent of all dental disease can be avoided by brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste and flossing once per day, along with having regular check-ups with your dentist. And a study published in the journal Hypertension found a link with poor oral hygiene (read: people who rarely/never brushed their teeth) and an increased risk of developing heart disease. “Dental disease is totally preventable,” says Dr. Cram, “and a lot of it can be avoided by stepping up your home brushing program and having check-ups.” (You’re probably making these 30 everyday mistakes that are ruining your teeth.)

Originally Published in No Excuses Fitness