Sitting reclined at the dentist's office, you find yourself surrounded by dental instruments ranging from shiny picks to handheld drills and UV light guns. Knowing the purposes for all these dental tools seems daunting. Yet every time you speak with your hygienist and dentist, they tell you some of the most important tools for good dental health lie in your own hands. How can that be?
Much of keeping your 32 teeth healthy -- 28 total for those lacking wisdom teeth -- depends on your day-to-day decisions with basic tools at home. As we look at a few of these great dental tools, keep in mind that dental health is shaped by a combination of factors, including a person's genetic background, diet, stress and other lifestyle activities. Since your dentist is probably your mouth's No. 1 fan, it's always a good idea to discuss using a new dental tool with your dentist. Also, substituting at-home care for routine dental exams is never recommended.
In this article, we'll focus on reliable dental tools that have a track record for being safe and effective. Frequently, it's the more simple instruments that get the job done.
Dentists recommend that every household sport our first two tools -- even our ancient ancestors created variants of them. Click to the next page to learn more.
Toothbrush and Floss
A decent bout of brushing and flossing makes your mouth feel clean, but there's another reason why employing these tools is so great.
Brushing teeth with a toothbrush and flossing removes tiny food particles and bacteria called plaque that build up on the surfaces of your teeth. When bacteria latch on to teeth surfaces, they tend to feast on the sugars from food in your mouth, releasing acids that can eat away at dental enamel over time.
Dental experts emphasize the importance of toothbrushes because they regularly remove these bacteria from your teeth. It turns out that what takes dentist's time -- and your money (and pain, perhaps) -- to fix might have been avoided with daily brushing.
Flossing also dislodges food buildup and plaque in areas of the mouth that are difficult to access with a toothbrush alone. Though it's not necessarily bad to floss after you brush, dentists say doing it beforehand will allow more fluoride, an ingredient known to keep tooth enamel strong, to reach surfaces between your teeth [source: American Dental Association].
Yet even among the most ardent brushers and flossers, plaque can still take hold. Read about a colorful way to troubleshoot this problem on the next page.
Dental Plaque Staining
Who thought staining your teeth would be a good thing? Well, temporarily at least.
Dental plaque staining helps you pinpoint spots you may be missing in your daily brushing and flossing. True, staining your teeth sounds strange, but it's temporary and safe.
At-home plaque staining kits usually come with chewable tablets that can be spread on the surfaces of the teeth and then rinsed with water. Let's say your kit comes with red tablets. After chewing and spreading the tablets on the surfaces of your teeth and rinsing, look for a light pink dye when you smile.
The dye will cling to areas of your teeth that have excess plaque, giving you a direct view of the sticky growth itself. In principle, the system works along the same lines as a UV light that illuminates stains on a carpet, for instance. In fact, some plaque-detecting dyes are fluorescent and illuminate under a UV light.
Dental plaque staining tools can help if you want to better your dental health but might not be able to spot problem areas.
Next, we'll discuss a dental tool that frequents your dentist's hygiene tray during visits.
Mouth mirrors similar to what's found at the dentist's aid in maintaining good dental health at home.
Though these elongated mirrors act as indirect tools, they're useful in showing areas you may be missing with routine brushing and flossing. Mirrors can also reveal discoloration or even the presence of some cavities that create sensitive pits in your teeth.
If you have fillings or other dental work you'd like to keep an eye on, these mirrors make the task a lot easier. Knowing what to monitor is something you and your dentist should discuss together.
Or, if you're simply fascinated with your pearly whites, a mouth mirror is a good way to learn about their dynamic surfaces and unique ridges.
When it comes to dental hygiene, your tongue sometimes gets left out -- but not if our next tool can help it.
Tongue scrapers have been shown to slightly reduce signs of bad breath in the short-term [source: Outhouse et al.]. But what do they accomplish, exactly?
These tools dislodge bacteria and fungus that have made a home on the surface of your tongue. By firmly dragging the tool from the back of your tongue to the front, you scrape off microorganisms that have established themselves there.
In studies, researchers found that tongue scrapers can reduce the presence of volatile sulfur compounds, which are associated with bad breath [source: Outhouse et al.]. Keep in mind that the scrapers should be used gently -- the idea is to remove bacteria on the outermost layer, not damage your tongue.
For people with chronic bad breath, however, visiting the dentist or doctor is recommended because continual bad breath may be an underlying symptom of another health condition. In sum, the benefits of tongue scrapers are small, but they're an option for people who want to temporarily get rid of bouts of bad breath.
On the next page, we'll look at interdental cleaners.
If floss alone isn't cutting it, you might want to consider interdental cleaners.
These brushlike wands squeeze in between teeth and other tight spaces. For people with braces, these tools help clean out debris often caught in between teeth and metal. Some are disposable, which limits their reuse, while others are attachments to a permanent tool with fast, vibrating motors.
A different type of interdental cleaner, called an oral irrigator, works like flossing and shoots bursts of water between teeth to dislodge bacteria buildup and food particles. Though interdental tools prove useful, they should by no means be a substitute for regular brushing and flossing.
Interested in learning more about great dental tools? Peruse more resources on the next page.
A new way to brush your teeth? HowStuffWorks looks at toothpaste tablets.
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- Outhouse, TL, Fedorowicz, Z, Keenan, JV, & Al-Alawi, R. "A Cochrane Systematic Review Finds Tongue Scrapers Have Short-Term Efficacy in Controlling Halitosis." General Dentistry. 54, 5. 352-359. 2006 (Aug. 28, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17004573
- Robinson, Peter, Deacon, Scott, Deery, Chris, Heanue, Mike, Damien Walmsley, A, Worthington, Helen, Glenny, Anne-Marie, & Shaw, Bill. "Manual Versus Powered Toothbrushing for Oral Health." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. January 2009 (Aug. 28, 2011) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD002281.pub2/abstract
- Vankevich, Paul. "How does Fluoride Strengthen Teeth and Why Add It to the Public Water Supply?" Tufts Now. Feb. 16, 2011 (Aug. 28, 2011) http://now.tufts.edu/articles/fluoride-teeth-public-water-supply