How to Brush Your Teeth + Common Brushing Questions

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Hi, I’m Dr. B, practicing functional dentist for 35 years. I graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, CA in 1987 and am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL), American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH), and Dental Board of California. I'm on a mission to empower people everywhere with the same evidence-based, easy-to-understand dental health advice that my patients get. Learn more about Dr. B

Brushing teeth is not the only way to keep your teeth healthy, it’s a great weapon in your fight against cavities.

You should brush twice a day for at least 2 minutes, according to major organizations including the American Dental Association (ADA).

Let’s look at how to brush your teeth the right way, step by step. 

Looking for how to brush your children’s teeth? Check out this article.

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How to Brush Your Teeth with a Manual Toothbrush

  1. Wet your toothbrush with a small amount of water.
  2. Put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste (for ages 6 and up) on your toothbrush.
  3. Angle your toothbrush towards your gum line at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Brush in gentle, circular motions (not straight lines).
  5. Brush for at least 2 minutes, twice a day. Use a toothbrush timer to spend about 30 seconds on all 4 quadrants of your mouth.
  6. Brush on the front, back, and all chewing surfaces of your teeth.
  7. Spit out your toothpaste (don’t swallow it.)
  8. (OPTIONAL) Rinse your mouth with cold water.

How to Brush Your Teeth with an Electric Toothbrush

  1. Wet your toothbrush with a small amount of water.
  2. Put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste (for ages 6 and up) on your toothbrush.
  3. Angle your toothbrush towards your gum line at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Brush in gentle, circular motions (not straight lines).
  5. Brush for at least 2 minutes, twice a day. 
  6. Buff your teeth with your electric toothbrush one at a time, making sure to reach all outer surfaces, inner surfaces, and chewing surfaces.
  7. Spit out your toothpaste (don’t swallow it.)
  8. (OPTIONAL) Rinse your mouth with cold water.

How to Use Proper Brushing Technique with Braces

Brushing with braces requires a few additional considerations to ensure you can remove plaque effectively:

  1. Before beginning your brushing routine, remove all rubber bands and any removable pieces of your braces.
  2. Wet your toothbrush with a small amount of water.
  3. Put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste (for ages 6 and up) on your toothbrush.
  4. Be sure to clean around your braces, which requires going under the wires and pins.
  5. Don’t forget to brush the wires of your braces.
  6. Clean all outer surfaces, inner surfaces, and chewing surfaces of your teeth as normal.
  7. Brush for at least 2 minutes, twice a day. 
  8. Spit out your toothpaste (don’t swallow it).
  9. Rinse your mouth with cold water.

How to Brush Your Teeth After Tooth Extraction

To protect your healing oral tissue after tooth extraction — whether it’s your wisdom teeth or a standard extraction, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Avoid toothpaste, which can contaminate or irritate the tooth extraction site.
  2. Avoid brushing the extraction site.
  3. Don’t rinse your mouth or use strong spitting or suction motions to avoid developing dry socket.

Should you rinse after brushing your teeth?

Adults using remineralizing toothpaste (with fluoride or hydroxyapatite) should not rinse after brushing their teeth. This gives the active ingredient additional time to remineralize tooth enamel.

Children, especially those using fluoride toothpaste, should rinse after brushing teeth. This prevents them from swallowing too much fluoride, which can interact with development.

Rinsing after you brush is never a bad thing, but by not rinsing, you may improve the remineralization of your enamel, depending on your toothpaste.

How many times a day should you brush your teeth?

You should brush your teeth:

  1. Every morning when you wake up
  2. Every night before going to bed
  3. 30-45 minutes after eating sugary, acidic, or processed foods

If you eat lots of carbs, sugars, or highly acidic foods and drinks, wait 35-40 minutes after your meals before brushing. This would include foods and drinks like sweets, soy sauce, soda, crackers, juice, and bread.

Why take a break before you brush? If you brush immediately after eating decay-promoting foods, you can actually gouge tiny food particles into your teeth. You definitely don’t want those particles to have their own little homes—so hold off before you brush.

To further reduce your risk of cavities, rinse your mouth with water right after you finish eating.

Some patients ask me, “Is it better to brush your teeth before or after breakfast?” Truly, it all depends on what’s for breakfast.

I recommend brushing within the first several minutes after waking up. Then, if your breakfast includes sugary, acidic, or processed foods (including juices and fruits), brush your teeth again 30-45 minutes after finishing your meal.

Can you brush your teeth too much?

Yes, you can brush your teeth too often or for too long. Marathon brushing sessions (4-5 minutes or more) several times a day may damage your enamel, especially if you’re brushing too hard.

Brushing teeth 3 or more times a day isn’t necessarily bad, but damage occurs if you’re brushing the wrong way.

I often see patients who have brushed away tooth structure and worn their teeth away using a toothbrush the wrong way.

Really, the issue is less about brushing too much and brushing the wrong way. Brushing frequently, like after every meal, is worst when you have bad habits. These can range from failing to replace your brush often enough to brushing too hard.

How often should you change your toothbrush?

You should replace your toothbrush (or brush head) every 1-3 months.

The analogy I like to use is this one: would you wax your car with an old rag with dirt on it? Never, because that would scratch the finish. The same goes for your teeth.

Toothbrush bristles are rounded when they get to your bathroom from the factory. But once the bristles wear away with use, they get flattened and can wear away at the enamel. This is why your dentist tells you to replace your toothbrush often.

The key is to throw away your toothbrush before the bristles splay or wear down. By that point, your brush is definitely doing your teeth more harm than good. Splayed bristles mean you’ve been using a worn toothbrush that is too abrasive and has probably been wearing away your tooth structure.

Ideally, replace your brush every month. If that’s not possible for your budget or lifestyle, you can probably stretch that up to 3 months without causing harm to your teeth.

Afraid you won’t remember to replace the brush? Many online subscriptions will send you a new one when it’s time to replace it. You can also set a reminder in your calendar and purchase value packs of brushes so you’re less likely to run out.

Here’s my review of the top 3 electric toothbrush subscriptions.

Which toothbrush should I use?

The best toothbrush is whichever brush you’ll use on a daily basis. All the fanciest features on the market can’t make up for a poor brushing habit.

Be sure to purchase a toothbrush with soft bristles. Medium- or hard-bristled toothbrushes can damage your gums or create micro-abrasions in your tooth enamel.

Check out my article on how to pick the best toothbrush for you based on your lifestyle, budget, and personal needs.

Which toothpaste should I use?

If you’re trying to reverse or prevent cavities, use a hydroxyapatite toothpaste like Boka or RiseWell. The hydroxyapatite (HAp) in these toothpastes actively remineralizes teeth like fluoride without the potential toxic effects.

If you have great oral health with minimal plaque buildup, choose any toothpaste with clean ingredients, no toxic fillers, and flavored in a way you like. Read more on how to choose the best natural toothpaste.

If you prefer to make your own toothpaste, check out my list of the best DIY toothpaste ingredients and recipes for DIY toothpaste.

But remember this: toothpaste isn’t necessary for normal dental health. You can brush your teeth without toothpaste and use alternatives like coconut oil, baking soda, or activated charcoal (or nothing at all).

While the act of teeth brushing helps disorganize your biofilm, toothpaste does very little to actually clean teeth.

I know most of us are so used to our brushing routine that getting rid of toothpaste would be weird. That’s okay!

Just remember that toothpaste is much less important than the motion of brushing teeth.

How much toothpaste should I use?

  • Ages 0-3: Use a sliver of toothpaste about the size of a grain of rice
  • Ages 3-6: Use a dollop of toothpaste about half the size of a pea
  • Ages 6+: Use a pea-sized dollop of toothpaste

The amount of toothpaste actors use in commercials is way too much! The CDC released research that suggests our kids are using way too much fluoride toothpaste. 

Stick to no more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Bonus: It’ll help your toothpaste tube last longer!

Why is brushing your teeth important?

Brushing your teeth is one of the most effective ways to prevent cavities by stopping the buildup of plaque that can lead to tartar.

When you brush, you keep teeth clean from residues that build up when you eat. Specifically, brushing disrupts your biofilm and disorganizes bacteria on top of your teeth. With no brushing, that bacteria work to decalcify (demineralize) areas of teeth, leading to cavities.

There are other things you can do to support clean teeth: flossing, oil pulling, and chewing oral probiotics to name a few. But using a good brush and proper technique is essential to maintaining a healthy mouth, especially if you regularly eat sugary, acidic, or processed foods.

What happens when you don’t brush your teeth?

Depending on how you eat, you may notice a very fast or a very slow buildup of plaque if you don’t brush your teeth.

If you:

  • Eat a lot of plant-based foods,
  • Eat or supplement with remineralizing nutrients,
  • And always avoid the stuff that causes tooth decay (sugar, acid, and processed foods),

… you might not notice much of a change if you stopped brushing regularly. Your biofilm is unlikely to thicken or become diseased.

On the other hand, if your diet regularly consists of food that promotes cavities, your biofilm thickens with bacteria after most meals.

Ever wake up with your teeth feeling “fuzzy” when you fail to brush before bed? That’s a big sign you aren’t brushing enough while also eating decay-promoting foods.

The bottom line: When you don’t brush your teeth, one of two things will happen. If you are totally committed to a diet 100% devoid of sugary, processed, or acidic foods, your teeth will probably continue to look and feel fine. However, if you eat foods in the above categories, failing to brush will result in thick, diseased biofilm, which leads to cavities and gum disease.

How bad is it if I don’t brush my teeth before bed?

Going to bed without brushing your teeth is like going to bed with poop in your mouth. It’s terrible for your dental health — don’t do it.

The naturally-occurring bacteria that resides in your mouth will be well-fed on the food residue you leave in there when you go to sleep. The strange “feast” will result in weakened enamel, decay, plaque formation, and cavities.

As the body is designed to do, the immune system, recognizing plaque as infection, will spring into action and attack the problem. It sounds like a good thing, right? WRONG! The victim will be the healthy tissues that hold your teeth in place, making gums pull away from the tooth.

Sounds pretty serious, no? It should, because it is. Brushing teeth before going to bed is possibly one of the most significant hygiene habits to form.

How does brushing your teeth fit into your oral hygiene routine?

Brush after you floss. Flossing first leads to a slightly better reduction in plaque buildup.

After flossing and brushing, scrape your tongue and consider oil pulling to reduce oral inflammation.

Optionally, use mouthwash after brushing your teeth and scraping your tongue. Mouthwash can only interact with clean, dry teeth.

Do I actually need to brush my teeth if I’m eating right?

Yes, you should still brush your teeth even on a healthy diet.

There is a school of thought that says: if you eat a proper diet, you may not need to brush your teeth. Before you throw away all your toothbrushes — or decide this is a totally crazy concept — let’s talk about this.

Before World War II, consistent teeth brushing wasn’t a normal part of the daily routine. People depended on toothpicks and tooth chews to keep their mouths and teeth clean. But in the 1940s, the Western world discovered the little-known phenomenon of refined carbs, sugar, and processed foods. These easy foods were made readily available on grocer’s shelves.

This began on the battlefield as soldiers were fed meals and given ration packs of foods that would stay edible with limited refrigeration. Biscuits, oatmeal, dried fruit bars, cereal, canned meats and cheeses, and some canned vegetables were the norm.

Consuming those foods over a period of time quickly resulted in large numbers of cavities. So, the Army strongly encouraged soldiers to brush their teeth on a regular basis.

Isn’t that surprising?

People started brushing their teeth less than a century ago.

The funny thing is that brushing is most necessary for people with poor diets. If you were to eat a Paleo- or keto-style diet, devoid of sugary, acidic, or processed foods, you probably wouldn’t need to brush your teeth. Weston A. Price discovered that fact all the way back in the 1930s during his time in primitive societies.

Because you may not be able (or willing) to eat “right” forever without cheating, toothbrushing is still important!

My family follows an 80/20 rule — about 80% of the time, we eat foods that help remineralize our teeth. The other 20% of the time, we enjoy foods that aren’t necessarily the greatest for our teeth but that we enjoy. Then, we brush our teeth!

Read more about a great diet for your teeth in this article.

Final Thoughts on Brushing Teeth

We all probably understand that brushing our teeth is vital to good dental health, especially with a typical Westernized diet. Other habits matter a lot, too, like using mouth tape and eating a remineralizing diet.

Brushing your teeth is one of the best tools in your arsenal for preventing and reversing tooth decay.