Do you clean your teeth immediately after meals – or swish with mouthwash after brushing? Naughty, naughty! Michele O'Connor busts the most common myths when it comes to oral health
MYTH 1 You should brush your teeth straight after meals
‘Never brush teeth immediately after meals or snacks,’ warns Karen Coates of the Oral Health Foundation (dentalhealth.org).
‘Eating alters the pH level in the mouth, making it more acidic. This acidity can soften tooth enamel and brushing straight after wears away the weakened enamel and can lead to erosion.’
If you wait an hour after eating, saliva will rebalance the pH. But because this isn’t always practical in the mornings, it’s far better to brush teeth before breakfast.
This has the added benefit of leaving a protective coating of fluoride on the teeth before you start eating.
MYTH 2 All toothbrushes are pretty much the same
‘Many people use toothbrushes that are too big and too hard, so not only are they not brushing effectively, they’re damaging their gums, too,’ says Karen.
‘Manual brushes should have a medium-sized head and a narrow neck (to reach the back of the mouth), with medium or soft nylon filaments or bristles.’
Studies show electric brushes (not battery-operated ones that lose power) can be more effective at removing plaque than manual brushes – especially for the very young and old – as they ‘do the work for you’.
Karen explains, ‘The best ones both oscillate (rotate in opposite directions) and pulsate (gently push against the teeth) and include a pressure sensor that buzzes or flashes if you brush too hard.’
But Karen says an in-built timer is vital. Left to our own devices, we tend to stop brushing after 40 seconds, thinking we’ve brushed for the recommended two minutes.
Try the Oral-B Pro 5000, from £84.99.
Children (not younger than three) can use electric brushes when they’re ready.
But choose models that are designed for them, like Oral-B Stages Power electric toothbrushes, £17.49.
MYTH 3 Gum disease only affects your mouth
‘Gum disease is linked to a whole host of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and strokes, and early and low-birthweight babies,’ says Karen.
‘This is because gum disease increases bacteria in the mouth, which is then transported around the rest of the body in the bloodstream.’
Unfortunately, many people are unaware they have gum disease. This is why regular check-ups are essential for treatment and maintenance.
MYTH 4 You don’t have to floss if you use mouthwash
Mouthwashes are no substitute for flossing. Karen says, ‘The majority are purely cosmetic – freshening breath – and can’t reach the parts of the tooth that flossing can to remove any debris.’
It’s a good idea to floss before brushing so any particles that are dislodged can then be brushed away. Tape is slightly easier to use than string, but if your teeth are widely spaced or you struggle to use tape, try interdental brushes.
These are like mini bottle brushes that come in various colour-coded sizes and slot between the teeth to clean.
‘Air and water flosses are also available, which some people may find easier to use,’ says Karen. ‘Ask your dentist or hygienist for advice on which products are best for your teeth.’
And don’t use mouthwash after brushing.
‘It will rinse away the protective fluoride from the toothpaste,’ adds Karen.
‘It’s far better to use a mouthwash at a completely different time, like the middle of the day, for maximum benefit.’
MYTH 5 You should have fruit for dessert to ‘clean’ teeth
‘While it’s far better for your teeth to eat fruit with a meal rather than between meals as a snack, the natural sugars and acids in fruit outweighs any ‘cleaning’ effect,’ explains Karen.
Finish a meal with cheese rather than fruit.
‘Dairy products not only provide you with essential calcium for strong and healthy teeth, but cheese helps produce saliva, which is your best natural defence against cavities and gum disease,’ says Dr Mervyn Druian of London Cosmetic Dentistry.
Alternatively, chew sugar-free gum. You’ll produce more saliva to cancel out the acid in the mouth after eating or drinking and help prevent tooth decay.
MYTH 6 Branded toothpaste is always better
‘Whether you spend £4 on a premium-brand paste or 20p on a supermarket’s own brand, as long as the toothpaste contains the optimum amount of fluoride, it will do the same job,’ says Karen.
For children under three, that’s 1,000ppm (parts per million) of fluoride and for those over three, it’s the same as for adults: 1,350-1,500ppm.
And you don’t need to buy brands aimed at children once they are over the age of three.
If they don’t like a strong or minty taste, try fruit-flavoured toothpastes. Children should only use a smear of paste while a pea-sized amount is adequate for adults (forget adverts illustrating an inch-length of paste!).
However, if you have very sensitive teeth, you might want to choose a desensitising paste – or if you have gum disease, one with added antibacterial ingredients.
But these are optional extras and won’t clean your teeth any better.
And there is no such thing as tooth ‘whitening’ toothpastes because, by law, they can’t contain enough of the bleaching ingredients required to whiten.
‘These types of toothpastes contain an abrasive, which removes stains, but they do not actually whiten your teeth,’ explains Dr Druian.
MYTH 7 Diet drinks are better than regular fizzy drinks
‘From a sugar point of view, diet drinks are better,’ admits Karen. ‘But they still contain acids that can weaken enamel.’
Fruit juices, smoothies and herbal and fruit teas may be nutritionally superior, but they contain natural sugars that have a similar effect on teeth. The best drink is water, closely followed by milk.
MYTH 8 Milk teeth don’t matter as much as adult teeth
‘Milk teeth are vital because they are the position guides – or markers – for adult teeth,’ explains Karen.
If they are removed because of decay, this can lead to orthodontic problems later, and speech and chewing are also affected.
So rethink the assumptions about ‘healthy’ snacks for kids. While dried fruit, like raisins, seem a nutritional choice, they can have devastating effects on young teeth.
Breadsticks, nuts and seeds, rice cakes and cheese make better snacks.
Avoid any snacks or drinks (apart from water) an hour before bed and give chocolate as a treat rather than sweets, crisps or biscuits because it quickly dissolves and doesn’t cling to teeth.
TIP Spit but don’t rinse when brushing…
…And don’t wet the brush before or while brushing – residual toothpaste left on the teeth offers additional fluoride protection for several hours after brushing. Then just wait at least 30 minutes before eating and drinking.