From the time your first tooth poked its way through your tender gums, those pearly whites have played an enormous role in your life. Not only do the 32 nuggets in your mouth help you talk and chew, they can make or break your appearance.
Although aesthetics are important, however, even more important is tooth and gum health. In the last few years, researchers have uncovered a link between periodontal (gum) disease and increased risk of heart disease. One study found that men with periodontitis had a whopping 72 percent greater risk of developing coronary disease than those with healthy gums.
To keep your choppers in tip-top shape (heck, just to keep them in the first place), we’ve come up with the following 22 tips that go far beyond just brushing and flossing.
1. Go on a white-teeth diet. What goes in, shows up on your teeth. So if you’re quaffing red wine and black tea, or smoking cigarettes or cigars, expect the results to show up as not-so-pearly whites. Other culprits to blame for dingy teeth include colas, gravies, and dark juices. Bottom line: If it’s dark before you put it in your mouth, it will probably stain your teeth. So step one: Brush your teeth immediately after eating or drinking foods that stain teeth. Step two: Regularly use a good bleaching agent, either over-the-counter or in the dentist’s office. Step three: Be conscious of the foods and drink in your diet that can stain your teeth, and eat only when a toothbrush is around. If there isn’t one, eat an apple for dessert — it will provide some teeth-cleaning action.
2. Hum while you brush. The ideal amount of time to brush in order to get all the bacteria-packed plaque out is at least two minutes, British researchers found. Today you can actually purchase a song called “The Brush Along Song,” which runs exactly 2 1/2 minutes, to accompany your brushing. (www.alianda.com/brushalong/brush2.html) It’s targeted toward kids, but so what? Isn’t there a kid within all of us? Otherwise, keep a timer in the bathroom and set it for two minutes.
3. Grip your toothbrush like a pencil. Does your toothbrush look like it just cleaned an SUV? If so, you’re probably brushing too hard. Contrary to what some scrub-happy people think, brushing with force is not the best way to remove plaque. According to Beverly Hills dentist Harold Katz, D.D.S., the best way to brush is by placing your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle against your gums and gently moving it in a circular motion, rather than a back-and-forth motion. Grip the toothbrush like a pencil so you won’t scrub too hard.
4. Drink a cup of tea every day. Flavonoids and other tea ingredients seem to prevent harmful bacteria from sticking to teeth, and also block production of a type of sugar that contributes to cavities. Tea also contains high amounts of fluoride.
5. Chuck your toothbrush or change the head of your electric toothbrush at least every two to three months. Otherwise, you’re just transferring bacteria to your mouth.
6. Use alcohol-free mouthwash to rinse away bacteria. Most over-the-counter mouthwashes have too much alcohol, which can dry out the tissues in your mouth, making them more susceptible to bacteria. Some studies even suggest a link between mouthwashes containing alcohol and an increased risk of oral cancer. To be safe, be a teetotaler when it comes to choosing a mouthwash.
7. Clean your tongue with a tongue scraper every morning to remove tongue plaque and freshen your breath. One major cause of bad breath is the buildup of bacteria on the tongue, which a daily tongue scraping will help banish. Plus, using a tongue scraper is more effective than brushing your tongue with a toothbrush, says Dr. Katz.
8. Even if you’re a grown-up, avoid sugary foods. Sugar plus bacteria equals oral plaque. Plaque, then, leads to bleeding gums, tooth decay, and cavities. Plus, the acid in refined sugars and carbonated beverages dissolves tooth enamel.
9. Instead, eat “detergent” foods. Foods that are firm or crisp help clean teeth as they’re eaten. We already mentioned apples (otherwise known as nature’s toothbrush); other choices include raw carrots, celery, and popcorn. For best results, make “detergent” foods the final food you eat in your meal if you know you won’t be able to brush your teeth right after eating.
10. Gargle with apple cider vinegar in the morning and then brush as usual. The vinegar helps help remove stains, whiten teeth, and kill bacteria in your mouth and gums.
11. Brush your teeth with baking soda once a week to remove stains and whiten your teeth. Use it just as you would toothpaste. You can also use salt as an alternative toothpaste. Just be sure to spit it out so it doesn’t count as sodium intake! Also, if your gums start to feel raw, switch to brushing with salt every other day.
12. Practice flossing with your eyes shut. If you can floss without having to guide your work with a mirror, you can floss in your car, at your desk, while in bed, and before important meetings. In which case, buy several packages of floss and scatter them in your car, your desk, your purse, your briefcase, your nightstand.
13. Keep rubber bottle openers and a small pair of scissors in your purse or desk drawer. That way, you won’t have to use your teeth as tools, which can damage them. In fact, never, ever use your teeth as tools for anything except eating.
14. Drink one 8-ounce glass of water for every hour that you’re at work. That way, when you get home, you’ll have finished your recommended daily eight glasses. If you work at home or part-time, make sure that you drink at least one eight-ounce glass every hour for eight hours. Not only does water help keep your digestive system healthy, control weight, and hydrate your skin, but it also helps keep your teeth even more pearly white. The more water you drink, the more bacteria you flush off your teeth and out of your mouth, which means less risk of gum disease, fewer cavities, and fresher breath.
15. To check the freshness of your breath, lick your palm and smell it while it’s still wet. If you smell something, it’s time for a sugar-free breath mint.
16. Suck — don’t chew — extremely hard foodstuffs such as peanut brittle, hard candy or ice. Chewing these hard foods creates tiny fractures in the enamel of your teeth that, over the years, combine to result in major cracks.
17. Ladies: Choose a medium coral or light red lipstick. These colors make your teeth look whiter, whereas lighter-colored lipsticks tend to bring out the yellow in teeth.
18. Chew Big Red gum once a day. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have found that the cinnamon-flavored chewing gum reduced bacteria in the mouth that cause bad breath. The reason? The gum contains cinnamic aldehyde, a plant essential oil used for flavoring that inhibits the growth of bacteria responsible for cavities and periodontal infections. Actually, any kind of sugar-free gum chewed after meals will help remove food particles and wash away bacteria (from the extra saliva chewing gum generates).
19. Eat a container of nonfat yogurt every day. Think of your teeth as external bones; just like your bones, they need adequate calcium to remain healthy and strong.
20. Keep an extra toothbrush by your nightstand or under your pillow as a regular reminder to brush your teeth when you first get out of bed and before you get back in at night. They’re the two most crucial times, says Kathleen W. Wilson, M.D., an internist at the Ochsner Health Center in New Orleans and author of When You Think You Are Falling Apart. That’s because saliva (which keeps cavity-causing plaque off teeth) dries up at night, so it’s best to have all plaque cleaned off the teeth before sleep. It’s also important to brush first thing in the morning to brush off plaque and bacteria (morning breath!) that may have built up as you slept.
21. Pour liquids into a cup instead of drinking out of a glass bottle. You could inadvertently bang the bottle against your tooth, chipping it.
22. Carry your own (plastic) bottle of water with you so you can avoid water fountains. Someone could bump you from behind and you could chip or break a tooth on the fountain, says Jeff Golub-Evans, D.D.S., a New York City cosmetic dentist.