Are You Brushing Correctly?

Updated on August 30, 2017
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Kate Parker is a dental hygienist and a wood burning artist, among many other things.

There are technically many ways you can brush your teeth, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are the most effective ways, or even the healthiest ways for your teeth and gums.

If you're going to spend a few minutes brushing each day, you want that time to be productive! You want to claim those minutes and chalk them down as having been "worth it."

Unfortunately, if you are brushing incorrectly, you can actually damage your gum tissue, which eventually leads to "receding gums" and tooth sensitivity.

Below, I will outline the correct, and also the incorrect, methods of brushing with explanations as to why each is the case.

First, however, I'll describe why you brush, what it accomplishes, and some basic techniques that should be used every time you brush.

Why Brush?

Biofilm (plaque) bacteria
Biofilm (plaque) bacteria | Source

Contrary to popular belief, when you brush you are not trying to remove the enamel from your teeth! You are actually just removing the sticky substance, known as plaque or biofilm, which is constantly forming on and between your teeth.

What is this biofilm stuff, anyway? Basically, it's colonies of bacteria that are trying to "stick" onto the smooth surfaces of your teeth. If they are not disrupted every day, they eventually calcify (harden) into calculus (you know — that hard stuff that dental hygienists scrape off when they clean your teeth.) You want to avoid calculus because it requires outside help to remove it.

Do you brush after every meal?

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The bacterial colonies in biofilm "eat" carbohydrates and "expel" lactic acid that weakens the enamel and causes cavities. Brushing re-mineralizes the teeth (minerals are in the toothpaste), hardens the enamel, and prevents cavities. So basically, you can disrupt the biofilm by brushing twice a day to minimize cavity and calculus formation. This is why you brush!

But there are "right ways" and "wrong ways" to go about it, as outlined in the "methods" section below.

Basic Techniques For Correct Brushing

45° angle brushing
45° angle brushing | Source
Cover all the tooth surfaces
Cover all the tooth surfaces | Source
  1. Use a soft-bristle brush. Period. This will not damage gum tissue as much as a hard bristle. Technically, anything other than soft bristle brushes should not be on the market! Imagine waxing a car. You wouldn't wax your car with sandpaper, would you? Similarly, you should not scrub your teeth and gums with hard bristles and a heavy hand. In fact, biofilm does not require much effort to remove.
  2. Further soften the bristles with warm water before beginning. This will ensure, as much as possible, that your gums will be "massaged" rather than "mangled."
  3. Always angle the brush at a 45 degree angle into the gumline. On the upper teeth, this means you tip the bristles slightly upward, and on the lower teeth you tip the bristles slightly downward. (Please see videos.)
  4. Form a plan — be methodical. You can start anywhere, but make sure all the tooth surfaces are brushed in the end: the fronts, the backs, and the chewing surfaces all need to be brushed twice daily.
  5. Brush for at least two minutes, twice daily. Biofilm begins to form again instantly after you brush, so you need to brush twice a day for long enough to disrupt the biofilm. If you can't for some reason brush twice a day, then brush before sleeping. When you sleep, your saliva production slows down, and saliva naturally helps cleanse the teeth. Brushing before bedtime will help your teeth combat biofilm and acid attacks.
  6. Use a fluoride toothpaste. This re-calcifies soft spots of the enamel and protects the teeth against acid attacks. A soft spot (white spot lesion) is the beginning stage of a cavity, so it's important to use fluoride to both prevent soft spots from forming, and to re-harden the enamel wherever these spots exist.
  7. Alternatively, you can substitute fluoride with xylitol. I recommend using a xylitol-based toothpaste. Studies have shown that xylitol helps prevent biofilm and calculus from forming, and is the only known substance (other than fluoride) that actually prevents cavities from forming. Xylitol delivers all the benefits without the neurotoxic effects associated with fluoride. However, for this to work properly, it's very important to use at least 6 grams per day. Brushing with xylitol toothpaste can be supplemented with xylitol gum or mints to reach this critical number.
  8. Toothpaste amount. The TV commercials want you to use more than you need to because they're selling a product and want you to buy it more often. Realistically, a dab of toothpaste the size of a pea is all you need.

Correct Brushing Methods

Video: Small Circles

Small Circles

This is the most commonly-used method of brushing, probably because it's so easy. After the bristles are softened and the brush is angled correctly, begin by making small circles that pass into the gum line and cover the entire surface of each tooth.

Remember to angle the bristles up when on the top teeth, and down when on the bottom teeth. There is no need to press hard. Biofilm is very easy to remove by brushing lightly--you don't want to damage your gum tissue! Remember to be methodical and cover all areas of each tooth.

Video: The Flick

The Flick

Not used as often as the "small circles" method, probably because it requires more dedication. However, it does an effective job of removing biofilm. After the bristles are softened and the brush is angled correctly, begin with the bristles pointed into the gum line.

Slowly "roll" the bristles down from the gum line over each tooth (or for the lower teeth, roll the bristles up from the gum line and over each tooth.) There is no need to press hard.

Incorrect Brushing Methods

Video: Side To Side

Side To Side

This is commonly used in conjunction with "the iron grip." Brushing the teeth from side to side, or right to left over the teeth and gums, harms the gum tissue.

Imagine, for example, that at each side to side motion, the gum tissue is being pulled and stretched. This method of tooth brushing can lead to receding gums and tooth sensitivity.

This method of tooth brushing is not recommended.

Video: The Iron Grip

Have you been brushing your teeth and gums correctly?

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The Iron Grip

This is commonly used in conjunction with the "side to side." Biofilm is thin and very easy to remove with light strokes. However, for the "iron grippers," they feel that brushing harder = brushing better.

This is not the case! In fact, brushing too hard can lead to receding gums, tooth sensitivity, and in severe cases, something called "toothbrush abrasion."

Tooth brush abrasion is where the enamel on the teeth actually is worn down, exposing the dentin beneath.

Often this is characterized by "lines" on the teeth, usually by the gum line, where continued abrasion has worn holes, thus leaving the tooth more susceptible to cavities.

This method of tooth brushing is not recommended.

Questions & Answers

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      • Faceless39 profile image

        Faceless39 2 years ago from The North Woods, USA

        Thanks for the great comments! I appreciate them :) Brushing correctly is one of the best things we can do for the health of our whole body. Thanks for reading..

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

        I try to be thorough when brushing and this has helped reinforce what I believed to be correct. Great info and great examples and explanations.

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        Dr Smith 4 years ago

        This is actually a really thorough and helpful article! Most people don't realize how important just the angle they place the toothbrush is. Choosing the right dentist is also up there on the list!

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        sony 5 years ago

        very nice jobb :D learned a lot, thank you!!!

      • Faceless39 profile image

        Faceless39 6 years ago from The North Woods, USA

        Thanks Flow, that's touched on in the second paragraph. I guess the difference would be you can focus more on each individual tooth with a powered toothbrush, which is harder with a manual brush. Angle the bristles the same as described above. Make small circles with the brush as before, or else make sure all surfaces of all teeth are covered. Don't press too hard; you need to make contact, but barely. Thanks for reading.

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        Flow 6 years ago

        What's a correct brushing method with a rotating tooth brush? (you have a picture of one at the beginning of the article)

      • Faceless39 profile image

        Faceless39 6 years ago from The North Woods, USA

        Thanks for the comments; glad I could help! :)

      • swathi180 profile image

        swathi180 6 years ago

        Good one,very detailed explanation.

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        Justsilvie 6 years ago

        Excellent Hub and very helpful. I again learned something new.

      • Faceless39 profile image

        Faceless39 7 years ago from The North Woods, USA

        Peter, thanks for the comment; I appreciate your feedback! I'm glad that you took something away from it!! KP

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        Peter 7 years ago

        Great info and I will sure follow the direction. In addition, I will pass along for my family members as well.

        Thanks again for taking time to post this.

      • Faceless39 profile image

        Faceless39 7 years ago from The North Woods, USA

        Thank you Mike and Robin for your comments!

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        Robin  7 years ago

        This was a good idea for an article: how often do you get such in depth instructions on something you thought you knew how to do? Thanks for the help, Kate-I thought I knew what I was doing.

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        Michael Salamey 7 years ago

        Kate, this is a great article. Thanks for the info!