Dental Care Basics

11 Teeth Brushing FAQs Answered

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Did you know brushing the wrong way could actually do considerable harm? Check out these frequently asked questions to find out if you’re brushing properly.

by Dr. Burhenne

teeth brushing
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I’m often surprised how many of my patients struggle with the best way to brush teeth—or how to train their children. 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.

What are the steps for brushing your teeth? 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.

How many times a day should you brush your teeth?

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.

Can you brush your teeth too much?

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.

Why is brushing your teeth important?

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.

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

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.

What happens when you don’t brush your teeth?

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.

How often should you change your toothbrush?

Depending on the brush you use, 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.

Switch out manual toothbrushes every month. If you use an electric toothbrush, you can wait 2-3 months before replacing the head.

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.

What’s the best toothbrush on the market?

All brushes aren’t made the same. Cheap toothbrushes are often manufactured without their bristles rounded at the top. Flat-topped bristles gouge small crevices into teeth that allow bacteria to fester. Your enamel is precious—don’t waste it just to save a couple of dollars.

electric toothbrushes

I highly recommend Sonicare or Boka for people over 40. Their sonic motion is incredible for removing plaque and calculus buildup.

For adults under 40 years old, my first choices would be the Goby brush or the Oral-B Vitality (it’s great for children, too!). Both of these use an oscillating motion that’s great for stain removal.

Boka and Goby are in the market as new electric toothbrushes. They provide subscription models that save you the problem of remembering to reorder brush heads. Both include two-minute timers with 30-second pulses to help you brush each quadrant for the same period of time.

Personally, I like the emphasis these smaller, subscription companies put on individual customers and their oral health. Give one a try!

manual toothbrushes

If you prefer a manual toothbrush, try the Radius Source. These incredibly sustainable brushes come with a handle made from the recycled material. All you have to replace is the head, cutting your carbon footprint every time you need to replace your worn bristles.

travel toothbrushes

Enjoy traveling often? I keep a Radius Tour brush in my car, since I commute several hours each week.

For a travel brush with a little bit of electric power (and no charging port), go for the Radius Tour. It’s also a subscription model, like the Goby and Boka brushes, and one set of batteries can last for up to six months.

Do I have to buy an electric toothbrush?

The short answer is no, it is not absolutely necessary to use an electric toothbrush.

I’m a believer in them because they do a lot of the hard work for you. They do it rather well and the cost is reasonable enough for almost anyone to afford. Another benefit is that an electric toothbrush won’t slip back into bad brushing habits (which takes the pressure off you!).

With the right techniques, a manual toothbrush will do just about as good a job as its electric counterpart.

However, if you have issues with excessive staining or plaque buildup, an electric model is the way to go.

What toothpaste should I use?

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 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 fluoride… or cavities. Why? I thought it was weird that we fill our toothpaste tubes and water supply with a dangerous chemical!

But there’s another option you can try instead. Not only is it better than fluoride at remineralizing cavities, it’s totally non-toxic!

Boka’s Ela Mint Toothpaste is made with nano-hydroxyapatite particles instead of fluoride. “Nano-hydroxyapatite” particles are tiny pieces of bone material that are drawn in by your teeth to rebuild areas that have been decalcified. These particles are the exact material your teeth are already used to, since they’re literally the same molecules!

The best part is that this new product is super effective, and 100 percent safe to swallow. Nano-hydroxyapatite toothpaste strengthens and remineralizes teeth better than fluoride and also helps desensitize teeth that have become sensitive to hot or cold. (2, 3)

Since it’s totally non-toxic, your little ones can also use it safely.

If you currently have a mouth full of strong, healthy teeth, opt for a natural toothpaste or no toothpaste at all. There are several natural toothpastes that I recommend for my average patient without cavities.

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Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Toothpaste

Non-toxic toothpaste with a refreshing taste. (it also foams very little, which means you’re more likely to brush longer)

Buy Now

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Jason Natural Powersmile Whitening Toothpaste

Fluoride-free and antiplaque

Buy Now

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Jason Sea Fresh Deep Sea Spearmint


Buy Now

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Jason Healthy Mouth Tea Tree & Cinnamon


Buy Now

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Dr. Bronner's Anise Toothpaste

Sold in multi-packs

Buy Now

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Rembrandt Intense Stain

Fresh mint, with fluoride

Buy Now

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Redmond Earthpaste Lemon Twist


Buy Now

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Redmond Earthpaste Wintergreen


Buy Now

When making your own toothpaste (which is less overwhelming than it sounds!), stay away from acidic ingredients that can cause enamel erosion. You should also greatly limit essential oils (if you use them at all) because they are strongly antibacterial and may destroy the oral microbiome’s beneficial bacteria.

Finally, do not use hydrogen peroxide.

I’ve developed several DIY toothpaste recipes that you can make at home with minimal cost and effort:

Many people wonder how long to leave toothpaste on their teeth. As you might have guessed from my stance on toothpaste, I think that as long as you’re brushing for at least two minutes, you’re doing great!

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

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.

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.

You don’t need an electric toothbrush, but if you have a lot of plaque or stains, they can be great for brushing teeth.

Choose a toothpaste based on your individual needs. For reversing cavities, try Boka’s Ela Mint Toothpaste.

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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