The Toothbrushing Mistake Everyone Makes

Updated: Jul. 19, 2022

Dentists reveal how this common toothbrushing mistake may be hurting your oral health and how to maximize the benefits of fluoride.

Visits to the dentist and practicing good oral hygiene, such as regular toothbrushing at home are essential to maintaining healthy teeth. When it comes to brushing our teeth, many of us do the following: Apply toothpaste on our toothbrush, do a gentle circular motion around our mouth, repeat on the inside surfaces, spit and rinse. However, this brushing method is partly wrong.

The Oral Health Foundation, an independent UK-based charity that aims to improve oral health and wellbeing, recommends that you spit after brushing your teeth, but don’t rinse immediately. Instead, you should aim to keep the toothpaste on your teeth for a few minutes before rinsing to maximize the health benefits of fluoride (found in most toothpastes) that is used to strengthen tooth enamel. Rinsing after spitting your toothpaste will wash away the concentrated fluoride and reduce its preventative effects. (Here are the only toothpastes dentists use.)

Fluoride in toothpaste has contributed to the decrease in the number of missing or decaying teeth in children in the U.S. (68 percent for 12-year-olds) from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, it’s role in preserving good oral hygiene is vital.

Read on as three dentists share how this brushing routine and following other oral hygiene rules may help prevent tooth decay and other common dental problems.

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The two-minute rule

Before you even think about spitting out (and not rinsing) your toothpaste, you must keep in mind the time you spend brushing our teeth. “The most important thing you can do to maximize the benefit of your fluoride toothpaste is to be sure to brush for long enough,” says Robert Crim, DDS, chief dental officer at Smile Brands, in Irvine, California. “Brushing for a minimum of two minutes will make sure that all surfaces are covered and that the fluoride has a chance to coat the enamel.”

For children or cavity-prone adults, rinsing with a fluoride mouthwash, explains Crim, “is a great way to ensure fluoride protection while also enjoying a fresh, clean, feel after brushing.” (Here are 8 ways to save your teeth from coffee stains.)

It’s also dentist-recommended to hold your toothbrush in a specific way to really “get in there” and clean. According to Greg Gelfand, DDS, a New York City-based dentist, you want to get the bristles and the toothpaste onto every part of every tooth. “The proper way to do this is called the ‘Bass’ technique, where the bristles are angled at 45 degrees to the surface of the tooth to allow the bristles to tuck under the gum line and wash away the bacteria.”

Adds Gelfand: “You should always brush gently and with a soft bristle toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes can aid in making your brushing more efficient, but isn’t necessary.”

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Use fluoride

When it comes to dental care, the American Dental Association says fluoride is your friend—the longer you leave it on, the better.

“Fluoride is like armor for your teeth,” summarizes Crim. “Teeth that are consistently exposed to fluoride through water and toothpaste build up a powerful defense system against decay. Additionally, fluoride compounds in the mouth can reverse early tooth decay.”

Greater fluoride exposure will help strengthen tooth enamel and improve protection against decay, but relax—this doesn’t mean you need to walk around with a mouth full of toothpaste.

The best ways to make sure you’re getting enough fluoride, says Crim, include:

  • Drink plenty of fluoridated water
  • As previously explained, Brush for two minutes, twice a day, with fluoride toothpaste
  • Rinse after brushing with fluoride mouthwash
  • Talk to your dentist about fluoride treatment and dental sealants

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man brushing teeth in bathroom mirrorPeopleImages/Getty Images

Spit, don’t rinse

Similar to Crim’s advice on opting for longer fluoride duration, Gelfand also agrees. This is especially crucial during brushing.

“To maximize toothpaste’s fluoride benefits, I recommend patients actually hold off on rinsing for up to 30 minutes,” says Gelfand.

“You can spit out the majority of the toothpaste after brushing, but try to hold off on rinsing when possible. Even if you leave it in your mouth for a few extra minutes, you will get added, tooth-decay fighting benefits.”

It’s important to brush twice a day, morning and night, and if you’re a parent, remind your kids to take care of their teeth straight through adulthood.

“Since we produce less saliva at night, and thus have less protection from acid-producing bacteria, residual fluoride left on your teeth from brushing will maximize tooth decay fighting benefits while you sleep,” explains Gelfand.

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Do use mouthwash

Port Jervis, New York-based dentist Seth Horn, DMD, recommends adults use a fluoride mouthwash and children chew fluoride vitamins. “Daily use of the rinses helps restore some of the lost enamel that comes from the acidity of a wide range of foods and beverages,” he explains. “However, if the teeth are not cleaned with the proper technique and frequency, the rinses won’t help the way they are designed to.”

Floss, then brush

There are three types of people in this world: those who floss before brushing, after brushing, or don’t floss at all.

Horn cites a small 2018 study of 25 dental students, published in the Journal of Periodontology, that confirms the best routine is: floss, then brush. The floss-brush group saw a reduction in interdental and whole plaque more than the brush-floss group. Furthermore, fluoride concentration in interdental plaque was higher in the floss-brush group than the other group. The floss-brush approach “may be the ideal sequence” for the most thorough removal of dental plaque, according to Horn.

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Talk with your dentist

If you have any additional questions about the use of fluoride, consult with a dentist. “Not all teeth are created equal,” warns Crim. “Some people are born with super-strong teeth and others are more prone to decay. Your dentist can advise you if you should consider adding mouthwash or fluoride treatment to your routine for added protection.”

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