Dental Care Basics

How to Brush Your Teeth the Right Way + 9 FAQs

Updated on
brushing

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.

Disclosure:
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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.

brushing

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.

brushing

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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23 Comments

Leave a Comment

  1. Thanks Dr. Burhenne! You’ve come through for me again. 🙂 Love this video and hope to get more people brushing this way.

  2. I knew the sawing motion was not a good way to brush your teeth so I do similar strokes like the video said to do but I also go in the other direction (up and down) more than anything. Is this an ok motion?

  3. Hi Dr. Burhenne in the video you mention the tooth brush stay between the gum and the tooth wiggle the tooth brush, so some dentist recommend circle motion is no significantly different for remove the plaque? and because I have the receding gums problems I am finding a way that can brushing my tooth efficient without wearing the gums, wish you can give me some advice.

  4. Hello Dr. Burhenne! I am a assiduous reader of your blog. Since you’ve mentioned proper brushing, I’d like to introduce you to the Kyoui Angle Neck Toothbrush. This innovative oral care tool was created by dentists to facilitate proper brushing techniques. Bristles are high quality Dupont soft single tapered bristles to enable cleaning between teeth and between gums and teeth while brushing. The angle makes proper brushing techniques easier and bristles are safe for gums and enamel.
    We are concerned about Oral-Systemic Health link and developed oral care tools to improve people’s overall health by providing more effective oral health. Please, visit our website to see more: http://www.Kyoui.com. Thank you for all your help about oral care problems!

  5. is it just as important to brush the back of the teeth? Also, can a person over-floss or do the gums just get stronger? Thanks for the great video. The teeth on your model are amazing!

    • In my case, yes it is. My dentist measured my gum pockets and the deeper ones are on the tongue side. So next time your dentist measures your gum pockets see where the problem areas are and perhaps concentrate on that.

      But one area that collects the most tartar is behind the bottom front teeth in front of the tongue. Saliva and calcium just tends to accumulate there.

      So if you do nothing else for the back of the teeth, just turn the toothbrush vertically and brush that one area. If the back tooth feels rough, it probably has deposits. If it feels smooth (and compare with right after a visit to a dentist) then it may not have deposits. So that’s one way you can measure the effectiveness of brushing, especially there.

  6. Thank you so much for this!
    Do you have any advice for brushing with a sonicare toothbrush? I find it difficult to angle it towards the gum.

  7. An explanation on the natural requirements of brushing will automatically demand an imitation of the chewing motion. Why not allow this info. so the rationale is obvious??

  8. tooth enamel ranks 5 on Mohs hardness scale, a copper penny is 3. Toothbrush bristles would need to exceed 5 in order to scratch the enamel. If you are brushing your teeth with a wire brush, you need more than a dentist, you need a psychiatrist.

    • What that is true, still you will be doing damage to the toothbrush by exerting a lot of pressure. So for me that’s a more important reason not to use a lot of force.

      Have you ever painted? If so you might be familiar that it is very easy to wreck a paintbrush by smashing it against the wall so the bristles go in all directions. Good painters never need to replace their brushes.

      So my suggestion is to use a tootbrush like you use a paintbrush which is is always stroke in one direction, up or down. and angled as it has been suggested.

  9. hello DR. my name is husna. i am having serious gum problems. should you even brush your gums? if so how many times do you brush? one more question how many times do you brush your tongue?

    • For serious gum problems, you might need periodontal care. So for go to a dentist and my measuring gum pockets and xrays the dentist can determine if you need periodontal work.

      No, you don’t brush your gums. For getting out tartar you can be very rough on your teeth, but whenever working with gums you need to be extra careful. But the gums touch the teeth and that’s the rub as it were.

      For the gums, especially bleeding gums use hydrogen peroxide (the store has it at 3%, but dentists recommend at 1.5%) and peroxyl ™ is that plus some glycol to stiffen it up and make it taste sweet and some blue coloring I guess because that’s what the marketing guy suggested.

  10. Thanks for the video. In my opinion more things like this should be done. And I find it sad that more dentists don’t focus on such basic preventative things.

    Worse, looking at the ADA’s recommendations for brushing teeth, I think in some ways it is misleading. So let me outline a regimen that seems to work for me.

    Since this is long here is an abbreviated and simple process.

    1. Remove loose food. Swig your mouth out with water. To be fancy you can swig with mouthwash such as peroyxl ™ which is just expensive hydrogen peroxide cut 50% with water and with some glycol for sweetness. I use a water pick at the lowest setting.

    One dentist opined that it isn’t that effective. That may be true for film and plague, but here we are just talking about loose food. My experiments by just watching what comes out in the sink shows that by far this is gets the most out and it is the easiest and fastest way too. Think of it like a leaf blower for a yard. Raking may be needed for some areas and to do a really fine job. But the leaf blower gets most of it with little effort and does it fast.

    2. Floss to get in between the teeth which may dislodge more food.
    Or a plastic toothpick. Both of these not only dislodge food but break up film and disrupt surfaces between the teeth. I find a little plastic Christmas-tree like brush called a proxabrush useful here.

    But to be simple, you can use just a toothbrush but *without toothpaste*. The toothbrush should have plastic bristles and be soft. Don’t use a lot of pressure and stroke angled in one direction only.

    If you want to do the tongue with the toothbrush or use something fancy there ok.

    3. Rinse mouth. Again hydrogen peroxide or peroyxl is good as it will further loosen attached tartar. Here give the mouth wash or H202 some time to get into surfaces and dissolve stuff.

    4. Apply toothpaste on toothbrush as you would painting a surface. It takes at least a minute for the toothpaste to bind with the teeth to form its own film. Rinsing your mouth here is optional. Most people prefer to do so. Just don’t do it before a minute or so is up from applying paste the the last surface.

    Ok. So now back to the more complete story.

    Let me outline my understanding of the overall process of tooth decay.

    You eat food and drink stuff. Particles in that food and drink linger in the mouth and on the teeth. In a little while a biofilm develops. That changes the pH or acidity in the mouth. Your mouth naturally has bacteria some good and some bad. But the tooth decaying stuff, or bacteria that causes caries isn’t there initially. That can only develop after the biofilm forms. And that takes about 2 days!

    So that means that if you are very very careful about brushing your teeth properly or have just come back from the dentist you can wait 2 days, assuming you do a great job. Of course, if you do a less good job, then yes, brushing more frequently is good.

    One thing that is woefully missing in brushing your teeth is any discussion of measuring effectiveness. The simplest measure is whether the tooth feels glassy or not. And this has to be done before adding toothpaste.

    If it feels rough, then it probably has some build-up on it. You could feel this with your tongue or your finger or a fingernail. But a little warning. A tooth with film also can feel slimy which is similar. So scraping that with a fingernail or a plastic toothpick might give you a feel for the difference. If you can scrape stuff off that is slimy, that’s the film.

    There are probably other ways. One of the more elaborate ones is a USB endoscopic camera to visually inspect. But the main point and something I think missing is some way to measure effectiveness of what you are doing. Imagine how good a job you would do painting a wall blindfolded.

    And that’s what most people do when they brush their teeth.

    So now let’s go over again the overall process.

    1. Remove loose *food*.
    2. Now that surfaces are exposed, remove film on teeth and buildup
    3. If bleeding and for further tartar breakdown swig with water, peroyxl or hydrogen peroxide
    4. Apply toothpaste like you would paint. Let it sit for a minute

    Another pet peeve of mine is how bad a tool a toothbrush is. First, most people use it to both try to clean the surface and paint at the same time. It can be used that way, but it does a bad job. Again think of the analogy of painting a wall. Better painters scrape the wall smooth and then possibly wash it down to remove dust. Then they apply the paint. If you apply paint on a service that has dirt or the old paint about to chip off, then clearly the paint isn’t getting to the surface (or tooth).

    So use the toothbrush dry for one purpose and with toothbrush for the other purpose.

    But the main way a toothbrush is inadequate is that it is too large. Imagine painting a picket fence (your teeth) with a brush that covers 2 or 3 pickets. Does your dentist polish and clean your teeth with a brush that spans more than one tooth? And while on that topic, does the dentist try to both apply paste and clean surfaces at the same time? No, so you shouldn’t either if you want to do a good job.

    Alternatives are this thing called a proxabrush which is like a Christmas tree. it is smaller. It can be used to get both the front and the back of teeth easier.

  11. Hello Mark Burhenne,
    Thanks for your outstanding advice with video demo. It is great to see that dentists demonstrate brushing .
    My kids do bit rush while doing brushing (Specially in morning as they need to catch school bus)
    For this reason, i made schedule at night for main brushing and morning can be minor one.
    According to me, brushing technique and proper brush selections also important.

    Warm Regards,
    Ben

  12. When brushing your gums, if they start to bleed, what is happening and why? Even though when I do this, I very gently brush, they will still bleed a little. Can this be prevented?

  13. Worth reading! Nicely explained how to brush your teeth the right way.
    Informative and concise.
    Thanks for the post.

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