Dental Care Basics

How to Brush Your Teeth the Right Way + 9 FAQs

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Not sure how to brush your teeth the right way? Even the most experienced of us can use some tips to improve technique! While brushing teeth is not the only way to keep your teeth healthy, it’s a great weapon in your fight against cavities.

Let’s look at some right and wrong ways to utilize this important habit (and several surprising facts about toothbrushing). I’ll also share how to brush your teeth properly, step by step. Looking for a way to teach your kids to brush? Check out this article.

How to brush your teeth the right way

There is a correct way to brush your teeth, and this is what it looks like.

First, wet your toothbrush, then place a small dollop of toothpaste, about the size of a pea, on the middle of your brush head. Gently sweep the brush in small, circular (not back and forth) motions for at least two minutes. Finish by rinsing your mouth out with water.

You can brush before or after you floss—both ways have benefits, but it really just matters that you maintain both habits.

There are three keys to brushing teeth the right way:

  1. Brush for at least two minutes.

Want to know how to properly brush your teeth? How long you should brush your teeth is very important… and easy to ignore, especially for children. Use about 30 seconds on each quadrant of your teeth to best disorganize the biofilm.

This means you have to ignore your brain’s built-in 45-second timer, which is the average time most people brush. To go the extra mile, grab a two-minute brushing timer or try an electric toothbrush with a timer built-in.

  1. Brush in small circular motions, not straight ones.

The “sawing” motion many people are accustomed to is counterproductive. It can lead to gouges in your enamel that make a perfect home for tiny food particles. Instead, focus on sweeping in a circular motion.

Aim for your gumline—that sweeping motion should point your toothbrush at and down from the gums. When you brush, the motion can help remove particles of food that get stuck right under the gums.

  1. Be gentle.

Don’t dig at your teeth like they made you mad! Gentle brushing is just as effective as brushing too hard. Plus, gentle brushing doesn’t damage your enamel.

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FAQs about Brushing Teeth

Q:

How many times a day should you brush your teeth?

A: The old adage of “brush twice a day” isn’t the whole story. In fact, how many times a day you brush your teeth should depend on what you eat! (But it’s still true that brushing your teeth once a day is not enough—going to bed without brushing your teeth is a little like going to bed with poop in your mouth.)

How often should you brush your teeth?

You should brush teeth:
  • Every morning when you wake up
  • Every night before going to bed
  • 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 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.

Q:

Can you brush your teeth too much?

A: I would estimate 80 percent of us are over-brushing. Brushing teeth three or more times a day isn’t necessarily bad, but it all depends on how you do it.

Combine the high cost of dental work with the universal human desire for a bright healthy-looking smile, and it’s easy to see why people become obsessed with teeth brushing.

Instead of talking about how long to brush, I’d like to see national discussion around how to brush.

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 most problematic when you have bad habits. These can range from failing to replace your brush often enough to brushing too hard.

Q:

Why is brushing your teeth important?

A: Brushing your teeth is one of the most effective ways to 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, mouthwash, and oil pulling, to name a few. But using a good brush and proper technique are essential to maintaining a healthy mouth, especially if you regularly eat sugary, acidic, or processed foods.

Q:

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

A: 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 1940’s, 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. (1)

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 percent of the time, we eat foods that help remineralize our teeth. The other 20 percent 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.

Q:

What happens when you don't brush your teeth?

A: The answer to this question all depends on your diet. 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.

Q:

How often should you change your toothbrush?

A: You should replace the brush (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 wears away with use, your bristles get flattened and can wear away at 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. 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.

My preferred advice would be to replace your brush once a month. Since that’s not possible for every family, it’s okay to stretch brushes to three months—but not more.

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.

Q:

Which toothbrush should I use?

A: The easiest answer to this is that the best toothbrush is whichever brush you’ll use. All the fanciest features on the market can’t make up for a poor brushing habit.

That being said, I’ve created a roundup of my favorite toothbrushes, based on lifestyle and budget, here.

Q:

Which toothpaste should I use?

A: Toothpaste isn’t necessary for normal dental health.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

Now, let me explain. 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! There are some great toothpastes out there for reversing cavities or achieving other oral health goals. (As an aside, though, the amount of toothpaste actors use in commercials is way too much! When you use toothpaste, you need just a pea-sized amount on your brush.)

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

I’ll drop one more small bomb here, too: I don’t often recommend fluoride toothpastes.

In the past, I’ve suggested patients with developing cavities use prescription-strength fluoride toothpaste to remineralize them. But I’ve been uncomfortable with fluoride for decades—I raised my daughters without ingestion of fluoride… or cavities. Why? I thought it was weird that we fill our toothpaste tubes and water supply with a dangerous chemical!

Plus, the CDC released research that suggests our kids are using way too much fluoride toothpaste. Since too much fluoride can cause fluorosis (or worse), why not try something just as effective without the risks?

But there’s another option you can try instead. Not only is it better than fluoride at remineralizing cavities, it’s totally non-toxic! I talk more about this in my article on the best natural toothpastes (read it here), but my favorite toothpaste is Boka’s Ela Mint Toothpaste. It can help reverse cavities with no known drawbacks!

There are plenty of other natural toothpastes that make great companions to a good brushing routine (including my favorite DIY toothpastes). Just remember, if it’s between using toothpaste or not brushing at all…skip the toothpaste.

Q:

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

A: You probably won’t want to hear this, but going to bed without brushing your teeth is like going to bed with poop in your mouth.

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. 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.

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

Proper technique makes all the difference, though. Here are the basics on the best ways to brush your teeth:

Brush in the morning, before you go to bed, and after eating sugary, acidic, or processed foods. Just wait 30-45 minutes after your meal.

Brush for at least two minutes every time.

Practice a gentle, circular motion when you brush, not a back-and-forth sawing motion. An electric toothbrush makes the proper teeth brushing motion for you, which is why I recommend them to many of my patients.

Don’t brush too hard.

Do you feel better about forming the best teeth brushing habits? What else would you like to know?

read next: How to Floss the Right Way

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Dr. Mark Burhenne DDS

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