Teeth Cleanings

How to Make Teeth Cleanings Less Painful

I don't believe in "biting the bullet" at the dentist. There are lots of things both you, your dentist, and your hygienist can do to make cleanings pain-free.

by Dr. Burhenne

How to Make Teeth Cleanings Less Painful

If you can’t stand having your teeth cleaned, you’re not alone. I used to hate getting my teeth cleaned. They hurt like hell. As a kid, I would try to trick my parents into forgetting about scheduled cleanings.

But now, as a dentist, I realize that the best way I could have avoided the pain was to have more frequent, not less frequent, teeth cleanings. Counterintuitive? Yes.

But the more frequently you go, the less there is to clean, making it less invasive.

If you wait too long in between visits, your immune system responds to the buildup on your teeth, making the gums more sensitive to the touch.

It’s like pulling a band-aid off of a wound. The skin underneath is extra sensitive since it’s used to being covered and protected.

Cleanings are more painful when you postpone them because debris has had more time to build up above and especially below the gum line — meaning there’s more work to do, and the buildup is harder to reach.

If you haven’t had a teeth cleaning in a while, below are some tips to make it less painful. Even if you go infrequently, these tips will help make your next teeth cleaning hurt less.


8 Tips to Make Your Next Teeth Cleaning Hurt Less

1. Take Advil before and after. This can help with pain both during and after the cleaning. Consider taking about 600 to 800mg one hour before the cleaning and then again six hours after the cleaning. This reduces the inflammatory reaction.

2. Get numb. Ask the hygienist to get you numb for the cleaning, just as you would get numb for a filling. In my office, we Q-tip some topical anesthesia onto the area we’re cleaning, which works well for lots of people.

3. Use a desensitizing toothpaste. Switch to a desensitizing toothpaste like Sensodyne Pro Enamel. Make this your new daily toothpaste.

4. Prevent gum recession. Gum recession is when the gum moves down from the tooth a little, exposing the more sensitive, lower part of the tooth. This makes your teeth more sensitive to not only cleanings but to your favorite foods too. When there’s inflammation in your gums and your gums heal, they recede. The more cycles you go through of inflammation and healing, the more gum recession you’re going to have.

5. Level up your oral hygiene. Brush and floss after meals. Scrape your tongue. Sounds simple, but the better your oral hygiene is, the easier teeth cleanings are. When you’re not in the habit of flossing, teeth cleanings are going to be painful. Flossing does 40% of the job in cleaning plaque off your teeth, so skipping it will make it so there’s a lot more for the hygienist to clean. If you hate flossing, try using a flossing stick.

6. Don’t overbrush. Most of us are brushing our teeth way too hard, damaging our teeth and making them sensitive. Brushing with the wrong motion makes your teeth more porous, and thus more sensitive. Double check that you’re brushing properly to make sure you’re not making your teeth more sensitive every time you brush.

7. Use an electric toothbrush. An electric toothbrush can help you brush more gently because the toothbrush does the work for you. If you tend to overbrush, switching to an electric toothbrush can help. Electric toothbrushes are also better at cleaning below the gum line, which can make it so there’s less for the hygienist to scrape there.

8. Get the right hygienist. Find someone who is willing to work with you. You don’t want the hygienist to be too light and not get the job done. But there is such a thing as overdoing it and being too rough, causing unnecessary discomfort.


I hope these tips help make your next teeth cleaning a little less painful.

Mark Burhenne DDS

Now, I want to hear from you! What do you do to make your teeth cleanings hurt less? Let me know in the comments below — I read each and every one!

read next: How Often Should I Go to the Dentist for a Teeth Cleaning?

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Dr. Mark Burhenne DDS

28 Comments

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  1. I think you have a new career, Dr. B.
    You are quite charismatic!
    I so enjoy the educational dental emails.
    I have learned much–

    Ellenrose

  2. I didn’t know that scraping your tongue could reduce teeth sensitivity. Also, I hadn’t thought of taking Advil before the visit, but that is a good tip. I will have to remember these tips next time I got to the dentist. Thanks for the tips!

  3. to brush your teeth by 8 and she RUNS to the bathroom to brush! Dr. Trey did a LOT of work in my 7 year olds mouth. So pesarosionfl and informative. You will leave his office on cloud 9, I promise! I wish I had a Dr.Trey when I was growing up. Gracie cannot wait to go back for her 6 month cleaning! Just LOVE them!

  4. This seems to cover sensitive gums, but what about sensitive teeth due to gum recession ?
    I dread going to my quarterly cleanings because I know scraping where there is less enamel is going to be painful. Fluoride tooth paste does not make much of a difference either.

  5. I never really thought about how more frequent visits and cleanings would make it hurt less! Unfortunately, it’s been a couple of years since my last cleaning. I don’t know if my new dentist offers numbing for cleanings, but I’ll definitely be asking about that! Thanks for the great list of tips!

  6. I had a terrible experience getting my teeth cleaned today.
    I have an electric toothbrush and brush twice a day, I floss almost everyday (I’m not perfect, but I’d say 5/7 days per week– I’m gentle but I got down between each tooth and the gum and it never bleeds, I use a floss pick that has a tongue scaler on it), I’ve never in my life had a cavity or any pain in my teeth. I don’t have sensitive teeth and don’t need a desensitizing toothpaste. I’ve also been lucky enough to have my teeth cleaned regularly through out my life.

    I’m now 22, I got dental insurance 6 months ago after getting a new job and not having it at my old job. It’d been about 1.5-2 years since my last cleaning and it was somewhat painful, but the hygienist said it wouldn’t be as bad next time.
    Today I had another appointment and it was the most pain I’ve ever had at the dentist. My gums were bleeding by my front teeth so much so that I could taste it while she scraped away. It was the most painful experience at the dentist I’ve ever had. After the scraping and the polishing, she flossed and it was so rough that my gums bled even more. My teeth are a little tight and she forced the floss down too hard and rammed into my gum instead of gently sliding it in.
    When I left I went out to the parking lot and cried in my car it was so painful.

    What do I do? I know she was just doing her job, but I never want to go back there after today. She made it seem like I don’t take care of my teeth, but that’s far from the truth (evidence: no cavities after nearly 2 years without dental insurance and the cleanings). Fine, it was painful the first time after a hiatus, but today was a nightmare.
    I can read reviews about dentists until my face if purple, but I can’t find information about the hygienists. I see the dentist once a year for mere minutes, the person who makes or breaks the experience for me is the hygienist.
    I shouldn’t have to take advil or get my gums numbed or use a desensitizing toothpaste to get my teeth cleaned. I’m a healthy 22 year old who has never had a problem with her teeth before.

      • That sounds absolutely horrible. I am in a similar situation right now, looking for a hygienist who doesn’t cause pain. It is ridiculous; a tooth cleaning should not be agonizing. Right now I have an appointment with a dentist who does his own cleanings; I am hoping that will help. The last hygienist I went to was so terrible that I got up and left as soon as there was pain. You should do that too; if they are terrible don’t just sit there. BTY I have found that “natural” toothpaste (xyliwhite by NOW) causes way less pain than Sensodyne, which has some weird foaming agent that can CAUSE pain in some people.

        • I had that same experience 2 days ago..that why im here searching and getting info online. I never had this experience before i been going to the dentist not so often but pretty sure every year i visit. I had several fillings done too and extraction. But only my cleaning 2 days ago i can describe as torture. Btw i’m already 47 years old imagine how many dentist i been through.
          Unfortunately, I just sit there and endure the pain, Although I told him that it was painful. i dont have the guts to get up and just leave the room. Sorry not just my character. But i salute the people who comfortable do that.
          Anyway, thanks for the tip from Dr. Mark I should have taken Advil before, coz now a took it after.
          Since after filling my tooth became painful too.
          But basically base on internet, dental cleaning will be painful depending on your dental health.
          So, taking a pain killer before and after the procedure would be helpful.
          Also, just my personal opinion maybe you should consider having an schedule early in the morning for your teeth procedures, coz in my case i had it 5:00 pm which is already late in the afternoon and probably fatigued plays a part too. Coz i feel his hand always slips and hit the gums that makes it very painful.
          Now im thinking of looking for other dentist but as i found out it is basically painful doing dental process. I guess I just need to managed it with Advil and plan to buy an electric toothbrush.

    • Definitely look for another dentist. I used to go to a dentist I liked, but I disliked the hygienist. Now I live in a smaller town and I had a dentist who was very choosy about her hygienists. She had two. Both were not only great at their jobs but were also very caring. That’s an important part of it! That dentist retired but chose her replacement carefully. The new dentist kept one hygienist but brought in her own as the other. The new hygienist is just as skilled and caring as the last. So consider looking for a small practice and ask people you know to recommend someone. The hygienist who cleaned your teeth should know better than to be so harsh, both with your teeth and with you. She shouldn’t be judgmental. I had to skip a cleaning because I had used up my dental insurance for the year. It’s not her place to judge and it’s completely understandable that you needed to wait until you had coverage.

    • I agree, I went to the dentist today and had the same experience. I was thinking about not going back. Most of the time the hygienist is sticking the scraper in my gums and I told her so. It’s as if she’s trying to force me not to come back and intentionally causing pain. What should I do?

  7. Thanks for posting these tips. They’re very helpful! My last dentist used to give me laughing gas because my teeth are so sensitive, but she retired and the new one doesn’t do that. So I’ve been nervous about the cleaning that’s coming up this week. I’ll use as much of this advise as I can. Thank you!

  8. I recently had an ultrasonic cleaning for the first time. I had a heart attack a couple months earlier and my gums were inflamed as well so it was suggested over cleaning by hand tools. It was fantastic! Inflammation gone. The gum swelling disappeared my teeth felt cleaner and I ve never had less pain. I am going to request this technique from now on!

  9. There’s no way a toothbrush with nylon bristles will do anything to dental enamel, the hardness scale is just too hard for nylon to make a scratch. Why does everyone spread this false info?

    • Why must you lie ? How are you going to experience another persons pain. It seems to me there is quite a few bad hygentist out there. Theres also plenty of dental trolls whom seem exempt from mistakes or failure. Its called malpractice & there seems to plenty of it & rising

  10. I made a heston burger from Waitrose with bacon jam this week, to try out your assertion that it adds another layer of flavour (I had a slick of aioli under the bun, some extra-ripe tomato and mild red onion in there too). I agree – a really tasty burger. Accompanied by chips and a sweet and sour pickle, lovely. Thanks for the tip.

  11. Good to read that I am no the only one experiencing severe pain while having teeth cleaned. I get it done once a year and have a caring dentist who tries his best. So looking for a better dentist will not solve the problem. I have tried special toothpaste & it helps a little but the real problem is my teeth have had a lot of work done to them (I am 57) and are not as well insulated as normal healthy teeth. I feel dentists have not experienced what we go through and simply can’t relate to it. They are out of touch with how much a nightmare this can be. Injections don’t work because it takes too long for them to take full effect & dentists are in a real hurry these days. I think I have a fairly high tolerance of pain but after the last clean I thought to myself on the way out ‘I just can’t face this again’. I’m sorry I have lost my nerve and all I want from now on is to be knocked out or laughing gas. Am looking around to see if I can get this assistance and the cost? I don’t know if I have the nerve to talk to my dentist about that as I have been made to look a bit foolish for mentioning that the cleans are painful – he didn’t like me mentioning that at all – and he is usually a very nice guy, is gentle and is a good dentist.

  12. I think leveling up oral hygiene sounds like something that should be tried first. It would probably make the trip to the dentist easier. It’s also pay off in the long run.

  13. Only an experience dentist know this to lower down the pain patient feel during any sort of surgery or removal of teeth I think that gum recession that must be very helpful giving patient some relief from pain

  14. To help prevent tooth sensitivity during my periomaintenance cleanings, I do several things. I usually have very little calculus, but it’s the stain removal that’s painful. I usually do not eat acidic foods. If I want acidic fruit, I make a smoothie in the blender, and drink it with a straw. I use a toothpaste for sensitivity 2 to 3 times daily. During the month immediately preceding my cleaning appointment, I use a prescription strength high fluoride toothpaste (1.1% sodium fluoride and 5% potassium nitrate) after my last meal in the evening, spit, and not rinse. That way the fluoride has a chance to absorb during the night. Then, the evening before my cleaning, I use a fluoride varnish (provided by my hygienist to use at home) where my gums have receded. During my periomaintenance cleanings, my hygienist uses warm water instead of cold, which makes a huge difference. I still have some sensitivity, but not as bad as before I started these preventive measures.

  15. I have had this problem my entire life, I am 23. I have no choice in which dentist I go to because I am still on my parents insurance but I cry in the dentist office from how much it hurts. They keep telling me about how I need to brush more, floss, and use a sonicare tooth brush. But I brush everyday and floss most days. I even got a sonicare toothbrush and sensodyne toothpaste but that hurts too. The only advice I have gotten is to use that toothbrush more often. But I shouldn’t have to relive the pain of getting my teeth cleaned 2 times a day. The worse thing is that my aunt is a dental hygienist and she says that it doesn’t make any sense that they are not working with me.

    What do I do? I have used the sonicare toothbrush and sensodyne for five years.

  16. I came across this article just now. I just had a dentist appointment today, and a couple of the last teeth in my mouth were somewhat sensitive, but that was just during the cleaning. Then I went shopping for toothpaste, but did not get toothpaste for sensitivity. Maybe next time.

    But I did take 500 mg of acetaminophen beforehand (before reading this article), and that probably helped. I’ve also been trying to floss more often lately. Hopefully, that also helps!

    Thanks for the helpful article!

  17. Thanks for the tips for making teeth cleaning easier. I want to make sure my trips to the dentist are easy and enjoyable. I like what you said about not overbrushing, because it can damage your teeth. I will be sure to try and not do that!

  18. My wife and I have been needing to find a dentist that we could go to for regular teeth cleaning, and I think that being able to know how we can reduce the pain for these experiences would be good. I’m glad that you talked about not over brushing when taking care of your teeth, and how it can make them too sensitive. I’m going to have to try and do some better quality at home teeth cleaning and hopefully reduce the pain for when I have it done when we find a dentist!

  19. I had no idea that it was possible to hurt your teeth from brushing them too much. We are looking for the best dentist that can help us care for the teeth of our kids and want to make sure we find the best professional that can help. Personally, I would also want to take the time to consider my insurance company in order to find the best dentist within my coverage.

  20. In this post you absolutely right because you said how to make our teeth clean without pain. This post is really useful for all oral patients. It’s such a great blog for all and me. Thanks for sharing this best information to us.

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