You don't have to be a dentist to know that regular tooth-brushing is the cornerstone of good oral hygiene, but what the average person may not know is that the instrument he uses to clean his teeth may also need cleaning.
A toothbrush's job is to remove plaque and food particles from the teeth. As a result, it becomes contaminated with bacteria, blood, saliva, and even old toothpaste over time. The American Dental Association recommends that people change their toothbrush every three to four months (even if disinfected), but even this may not be enough to keep a toothbrush from becoming contaminated.And since they aren't required to be sold in a sterile package, a toothbrush can already have bacteria on it right out of the box [sources: ADA, CDC].
While cleaning your teeth with a "dirty" toothbrush might sound both like a waste of time and rather gross, currently there is no public research indicating that brushing with a contaminated toothbrush will lead to recontamination of the brusher's mouth, oral infections or other adverse health effects. That said, people with compromised immune systems are recommended to take extra precautions to keep their toothbrushes clean. For those people, as well as anyone who just gets the willies at the thought of using a grimy brush, there are a variety of methods disinfecting, sanitizing and decontaminating a toothbrush [source: CDC].
Ultraviolet (UV) light is one of the most common ways to disinfect a toothbrush. Typically, the brush head is stored in a small plastic container, which aims UV light at it for 6 to 8 minutes before and after brushing. Effervescent disinfecting tablets can also be used to sanitize toothbrushes; water and the tablet combine to create bubbles that sanitize the toothbrush as it soaks (about 10 minutes).
You don't necessarily have to go out and buy products specifically for disinfecting a toothbrush. Soaking a toothbrush in an antiseptic mouthwash, freezing or boiling the toothbrush or putting it in an automatic dishwasher are all ways in which a toothbrush can be cleaned without buying specialized products [source: WorlDental].
But before you start boiling water or freezing your toothbrush, read on for a few things you should know about toothbrush disinfection.
Tips for Cleaning and Disinfecting a Toothbrush
While the methods described on the previous page are all generally accepted ways to disinfect a toothbrush, some health professionals say that disinfecting is not only pointless, but can also be harmful. The human body is constantly exposed to potentially harmful microbes, and the body defends itself through our barriers of skin and mucous membranes and infection-fighting antibodies. Because of our natural defenses, both the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that toothbrush disinfection is simply not necessary. In fact, it could evenlead to cross-contamination if multiple people use the same disinfectant solution over a period of time. Additionally, the use of dishwashers, microwaves or ultraviolet devices may also damage the toothbrush by wearing down the bristles and making it less effective [sources: ADA, CDC].
- Rinse the toothbrush thoroughly with water after brushing.
- Store the brush upright so it can air-dry between uses. If more than one brush is stored in the same holder or area, the brushes shouldn't touch each other.
- Toothbrushes shouldn't be stored in a cabinet or drawer because dark, moist environments are breeding grounds for bacteria.
- Check your toothbrush for signs of wear and tear, and replace it more frequently than every three to four months if needed. Children's toothbrushes often need to be replaced more frequently than adult brushes.
- American Dental Association. "Statement on Toothbrush Care: Cleaning, Storage and Replacement." November 2005. (Nov. 6, 2011) http://www.ada.org/1887.aspx
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The Use and Handling of Toothbrushes." Sept. 22, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/infectioncontrol/factsheets/toothbrushes.htm
- Weil, Andrew. "Q + A Library." Dr. Weil. Feb. 20, 2006. (Nov. 6, 2011) http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA363242
- WorlDental. "Best Ways to Disinfect Toothbrush." Nov. 27, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2011) http://worldental.org/oral-hygiene/best-ways-to-disinfect-toothbrush-toothbrush-sanitizers-and-sterilizers/975/