How a Dental Hygienist Takes Care of Her Teeth
If you eat, drink, and sleep every day, you need to brush your teeth every day too. And floss. And clean your tongue. These actions remove food debris and harmful bacteria in your mouth, reducing your chance of getting gum disease and cavities.
We asked Mei Lam, a registered dental hygienist and safety coordinator with Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, about her daily oral health routine to find out what we’re doing wrong and doing right.
Every day, Lam brushes her teeth two or three times, flosses, cleans her tongue, and rinses with mouthwash.
Lam always brushes when she wakes up in the morning and before bed. If she has the time, and access to a sink, she brushes after she eats lunch. “Some people like to brush after each meal,” she says. “It's important to find a routine that works for you and do it every day.”
Cleaning the tongue each day removes bacteria between the tiny bumps (papillae) on the tongue. That bacteria can alter taste and cause bad breath. Start at the back of the tongue and move toward the front to lessen the chance of gagging.
The science behind brushing teeth
Using the proper technique, brushing gets rid of food particles and reduces sticky plaque (AKA dental biofilm). “I always use a soft bristle toothbrush, which reduces wear on the tooth’s outer enamel and prevents the gums from receding,” Lam says.
Each time Lam brushes, she brushes for at least two minutes to thoroughly clean all areas. “I prefer using an electric toothbrush with a preset timer. You can also set a timer on your phone.”
All inner, outer, and chewing surfaces of teeth should be cleaned.
- For the back teeth: Hold toothbrush at a 45-degree angle toward the gumline. Move the toothbrush back and forth or in small circular gentle motions.
- For the inside of the front teeth: Tilt the toothbrush vertically and brush up away from the gumline.
- On chewing surfaces: Place the bristles flat on the tooth and use scrubbing motions to allow cleaning of the crevices.
Why brush your teeth before bed
When you sleep you produce less saliva, which makes your mouth more acidic. Cavity-causing bacteria thrive in acidic conditions. Brushing and flossing before bed helps keep the number of bacteria in the mouth under control.
Strictly speaking, toothpaste is not necessary to remove plaque and food particles, but it is helpful in re-mineralizing tooth enamel.
“Always use toothpaste with a seal from the American Dental Association, because those contain the right amount of fluoride,” says Lam.
Other ingredients help with sensitivity, tartar, and stains:
- Potassium nitrate helps reduce sensitivity.
- Sodium pyrophosphate helps reduce the development of tartar-forming crystals.
Hug your teeth when flossing
When you floss, you are mechanically removing food and bacteria between teeth and under the gumline. These areas are often difficult to reach with the toothbrush. Lam flosses daily, usually before bedtime.
There’s a right way (hugging) and a wrong way (slamming) to floss your teeth.
“The key is to gently guide the floss between your teeth and avoid cutting your gums,” Lam says. “Do not push the floss straight down and pull the floss straight out.”
Instead, create a “C” shape with the floss—hugging the floss around the side of the tooth—and then gently slide the floss down the tooth until it goes under the gumline. Maintain the “C” shape on the way back up. Without hugging, the sides of the tooth are not properly cleaned, and the floss cannot access under the gumline.
“Do not use a sawing motion,” Lam says. “This can injure the delicate gum tissue and cause discomfort.”
Mei Lam, RDH, is a registered dental hygienist and safety coordinator at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine.
In addition to a regular home routine, get your teeth professionally cleaned twice a year to maintain healthy oral hygiene.