Teeth shine like Chicklets? You still need to see a dentist. “Assuming teeth are healthy can be both painful and costly over time,” says dentist Dan Marut, DMD. “Dental disease is a lot like diabetes and heart disease. You don't feel any thing is wrong until something very serious is occurring.” Many times you will not feel anything until the problem has reached the nerve of the tooth. In other words, don’t trust the glint of your pearly whites. The only way to really know if your teeth are healthy is to visit a dentist.
It may seem counterintuitive, but gentle bristles work better. “A hard toothbrush may cause you to brush your gums away,” says celebrity cosmetic dentist Bill Dorfman, DDS. And don’t use a sawing motion when brushing, either. Instead, point your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle and brush using an up-and-down motion.
At least the sugary ones. Dorfman says he once had a patient who decided to go into real estate. Terrified of bad breath, she would constantly pop breath mints before meeting with clients. A year later she had 35 cavities. “You’re basically bathing your teeth in sugar for hours upon hours,” says Dorfman. Instead of sucking on breath mints all day, keep a travel-size toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in your desk or purse.
That pen cap you nervously chew on all day could be causing serious damage to your chompers' enamel. “Your teeth weren’t made to chew on pens and pen caps,” Dorfman says. “You should not put things in your mouth that aren’t meant to be eaten.” The solution? Awareness. Most people don’t realize that they’re chewing on anything, says Dorfman. If you can’t kick the habit, take the advice of parents with thumb-suckers and paint a bitter-tasting substance onto the offending object.
If you dig too hard, toothpicks can also scrape the enamel of your teeth or damage your gums. They’re also too big to fit in between your teeth where the most detrimental bacteria thrive, says Dorfman. Always reach for floss, or consider investing in Sonicare’s AirFloss, which cleans those hard-to-reach spots with high-powered gusts of air and water.
Flossing sticks may seem like the perfect toothpick-floss hybrid, but they don’t offer enough flexibility, which is key to successful flossing. “Traditional floss enables the user to adapt the floss to the curvature of the tooth,” says periodontist Nicholas Toscano, DDS. “With floss sticks you’re using the same piece of string and essentially just moving the bacteria around, not really removing it.” If you like the feel of floss sticks, try switching to interproximal brushes, although you must have sufficient space between your teeth in order to use them, says Toscano.
Soft foods can cause a surprising amount of trouble. They stick to teeth and turn into sugar, which—when combined with residual plaque—form an acid that eats away at enamel, says Irwin Smigel, DDS, the celebrity cosmetic dentist who created the Supersmile brand of dental care. “This acid can burrow beneath the periodontal membrane which can lead to bleeding gums as well as periodontal disease.” Soft foods also generally fail to stimulate saliva production, which helps force bacteria to disperse and neutralize, preventing cavities and bad breath and strengthening gums. Eat firm, crunchy food with a high water content—such as celery, apples and pears—daily.
If you want to avoid staining your teeth with vibrant food and drink—such as red wine and espresso—moderation is key, says Dorfman. “Have coffee, but don’t have 20 cups a day,” he says. “You’re bathing your teeth in this really, really strong color. It doesn’t hurt them, it just makes them look bad.” If you can’t resist another glass, consider professionally whitening your teeth with a Zoom! or BriteSmile treatment.
The most common flossing mistake is not going deep enough into the gum, says Dorfman. You really need to wrap the floss around the tooth and go all the way down underneath the gum using an up-and-down motion rather than a sawing motion, he says.
While you should always stick to a rigorous oral care routine like brushing, flossing and visiting a dentist regularly for cleanings, it is even more important to do so when you’re pregnant, on birth control or going through menopause. The hormone progesterone dilates blood vessels—causing inflammation—and slows down the repair of collagen, the protein that supports gums, says Robert H. Gregg II, DDS, president of the Institute for Advanced Laser Dentistry. Hormonal changes don’t cause gum disease, but they do make women more vulnerable to it. Check in with your dentist if you experience any flare-ups during these times.
Maintain existing restoration work, like fillings and crowns, to avoid the buildup of plaque and bacteria growth. “Abnormal surfaces or crevices can harbor dangerous bacteria, says Gregg, which puts gums at greater risk [for gingivitis and related consequences like bad breath.]” Pay attention to break downs such as gaps and openings between teeth. If you spot any, make an appointment with your dentist right away to prevent them from getting worse.
Malnutrition is a contributing factor of gum disease. Keep your teeth in tact by getting at least 180 mg of vitamin C a day—the amount found in about three oranges. “Vitamin C can help repair damage and maintain the connective tissue that keeps mouths healthy,” says Gregg. “Those who fail to get the recommended daily allowance are 1.5 times more likely to develop severe gingivitis than those who don’t.”
If your parents had gum disease, you’re 12 times more likely to suffer the same fate. Spouses, partners and children may become more susceptible, as well, because the bacteria that causes gingivitis is contagious and can be transmitted via oral contact, says Dawn Bloore, DDS and vice president and training director for the Institute for Advanced Laser Dentistry in Cerritos, California. If you have gingivitis, or suspect you have it, head to your dentist immediately and avoid kissing and sharing utensils with your loved ones.
In case you need another reason to take your last drag: “Smokers exhibit bone loss and gum recession even without gum disease,” says Gregg. Risk increases depending on how many cigarettes you smoke a day but is even affected by secondhand smoke. Help keep your teeth and gums in tact by abandoning tobacco. Resources are available at smokefree.gov. And remember: Check in with your dentist upwards of four times a year for cleanings until you kick that bad habit in the butt.
Saliva acts like a buffer between pathogens that are trying to destroy your teeth. If you suffer from dry mouth—which is often caused by mouth breathing or prescription meds (particularly blood pressure medication)—try an over-the-counter toothpaste or rinse designed specifically to combat the condition, such as Biotene or Colgate Dry Mouth Relief Fluoride Mouthwash. The more saliva you have swishing around in your mouth all day, the better you’ll be able to defend against smile-sabotaging bacteria.
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t forget to brush! Stress produces cortisol, a hormone that’s like candy for gingivitis-causing bacteria, says Bloore. Surgical procedures such as the LANAP protocol (a laser treatment that eliminates the diseased portions of gums and can stimulate growth factors) can zap pathogens, but don’t let it get to that point. Schedule regular relaxation sessions, such as yoga, meditation or massage and continue to brush, floss and visit your dentist regularly.
Alcohol abusers are more likely to experience periodontal disease, tooth decay and more precancerous areas than healthy individuals due to general neglect and lack of care, says Bloore. Alcohol also destroys collagen attachments to the teeth, resulting in tooth loss. To avoid a jack-o’-lantern grin, drink moderately and maintain good oral hygiene habits.