Your mouth is the only part of your body that doesn't have a natural mechanism for shedding its surface. This makes it a perfect hangout for bacteria, and lots of it. As you read this, a whopping 600 species of bacteria are lurking in your mouth, many of them clinging to the surface of your teeth [source: Science Daily]. And you're in charge of making sure they don't stay there.
If you don't physically clean off all this bacteria within 24 to 48 hours, it'll turn into the pale yellow substance known as dental biofilm, or plaque. Plaque creates acid that slowly eats away at your teeth -- and if you let it hang around for several days, it hardens into tartar, which you'll need a professional to remove. Your saliva acts to neutralize the acid, but it'll have a tougher job as the plaque and tartar start to build up. The longer this goes on, the greater risk you run of developing gingivitis, tooth decay and periodontal disease [source: Colgate].
Feeling the urge to brush your teeth immediately to prevent a plaque attack? Read on to learn about the ways to keep your mouth clean and free of plaque.
Your first line of defense against plaque is, of course, regular tooth brushing. To prevent plaque buildup, you need to brush at least twice a day for a minimum of 2 minutes with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush, paying close attention to all surfaces of the teeth and your tongue. Strokes should be short and vertical -- but you shouldn't use a lot of pressure while brushing. When you're done, rinse your toothbrush well, shake it out and let it dry thoroughly. And according to Howard Sesemann, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, it doesn't matter if you use a manual or electric toothbrush as long as you use the proper brushing techniques [source: Doheny].
Plaque loves to hide between your teeth, and even the most meticulous tooth-brusher can't get rid of it all. Here's where flossing comes in. Experts recommend flossing at least once a day -- using about 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) of floss wrapped around your index fingers -- to get between all your teeth and behind your very back teeth (if you're flossing correctly, it should take you about 3 to 5 minutes). If flossing is difficult, experiment with alternative such as superfloss or dental tape. Narrow, spiral interdental brushes and pronged floss holders are also effective and might be easier to use. Water picks, however, aren't a good substitute for flossing -- they don't reach into the crevices as successfully [source: Carr].
There's another important step in your daily fight against plaque: the antimicrobial rinse. After you brush and floss, a good swish of mouthwash can disinfect your mouth. Some over-the-counter mouthwashes contain plaque fighters like fluoride, chlorhexidine gluconate, zinc citrate and triclosan, but prescription products will be stronger. Be warned, though: Many mouthwashes have a high alcohol content, so if you have kids, it's best to get all-natural rinses. Look for products with peppermint oil, tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract.
Some foods are obviously bad news. Soda, candy bars, cupcakes -- we all know they're going to wreak havoc on our systems. Others can be great for your body but not so great for your mouth. Dark-colored fruits, for example, can cause plaque and stain teeth due to their high sugar and acid content (although natural sugar is much less damaging than refined sugar). Veggies, though, are all-around amazing. They're low in sugar and acid, so they won't cause plaque or stains, and if they're crunchy, the chewing motion will physically brush your teeth -- and produce helpful saliva, which is your body's natural plaque fighter.
To get the most mileage out of your good brushing, flossing and rinsing habits, see your dentist twice a year. Beyond giving you a thorough cleaning, your dentist will identify any trouble spots and stop gingivitis, tooth decay and gum disease in its tracks. If you're particularly prone to plaque attacks, your dentist can also apply a thin coating of sealant to the chewing surfaces of your teeth.
For more tips on keeping your teeth clean and healthy, take a look at the links on the next page.
A new way to brush your teeth? HowStuffWorks looks at toothpaste tablets.
More Great Links
- American Dental Association. "Plaque." (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.ada.org/3101.aspx?currentTab=1
- American Dental Hygienists Association. "Proper Flossing." (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.adha.org/oralhealth/flossing.htm
- Carr, Alan, D.M.D. "Dental Floss or Water Pick: Which is Better?" Mayo Clinic. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dental-floss/AN01782
- Colgate. "Periodontitis." (Sept. 6, 2011) http://www.colgate.com/app/CP/US/EN/OC/Information/Articles/Oral-and-Dental-Health-Basics/Common-Concerns/Gum-Disease/article/Periodontitis.cvsp
- Delta Dental. "Antimicrobial Mouth Rinse." (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.deltamass.com/oralhealth/articles/Mouthrinse.html
- Doheny, Kathleen. "10 Toothbrushing Mistakes." WebMD. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-10/brushing-teeth-mistakes
- Freeman, David. "Flossing Teeth: No More Excuses!" WebMD. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-10/flossing-floss-sticks
- Listerine. "Listerine Antiseptic Mouthwash." (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.listerine.com/products/product-original
- Oral-B. "Fill the Gaps in Your Oral Care Routine With Spongy Floss or Dental Tape." (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.oralb.com/topics/fill-the-gaps-in-your-oral-care-routine-with-spongy-floss-or-dental-tape.aspx
- Rondon, Nayda. "Oral Rinses: Mouth Rinses and Mouthwashes." Consumer Guide to Dentistry. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.yourdentistryguide.com/oral-rinse/
- Science Daily. "New Bacterial Species Found in Human Mouth." Aug. 11, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080810214006.htm
- Simply Teeth. "Diet and Tooth Decay." (Aug . 29, 2011) http://www.simplyteeth.com/category/sections/adult/caringteethgums/DietDecay.asp?category=adult§ion=4&page=5
- Simply Teeth. "Mouth Rinses and Mouthwashes." (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.simplyteeth.com/category/sections/adult/CaringTeethGums/Mouthrinses.asp?category=adult§ion=4&page=9
- WebMD. "Foods That Stain Your Teeth." (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-10/slideshow-foods-stain-teeth
- WebMD. "Plaque and Your Teeth." (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/plaque-and-your-teeth