If you’ve walked into a drugstore lately, you’ve likely noticed the oral health aisle—everything from brushes and floss to electrical gadgets and bleaching kits—steadily expanding. But do we really need to think about our teeth beyond brushing a couple of times a day?
Perhaps because visits to a family doctor and a dentist are decoupled, people don’t always associate dental health with their overall physical health. But Dr. Laura Dempster, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of dentistry, says it’s “important to appreciate that dental health is part of overall systemic health, because what happens in your mouth can impact the rest of your body and vice versa.”
When it comes to dental health, the most important thing is to find a routine that works and a dental practitioner who can help you make the right choices. “Oral hygiene should be individualized to the patient,” says Dempster. And if you really want to maximize how effective you are, she says to give your teeth their most thorough clean before bed. We produce less saliva—which protects our teeth—while we sleep.
For example, harmful bacteria like Streptococcus mutans build up in your mouth when you don’t remove the plaque from your teeth by brushing and flossing properly, which can lead to cavities and gum disease. This disease makes your gums bleed, and the bacteria can then enter your bloodstream, where they encourage clots to form, increasing your risk of heart disease.
Luckily, Canadians take pretty good care of their teeth—75 percent visit a dental clinic each year. Keep in mind: by the time symptoms develop, a problem has already been brewing under the surface for a while, which is why Dempster stresses the importance of regular checkup.
So, dentist visits aside, how do we keep our mouths healthy?
It’s recommended that we floss once a day, but only 28 percent of Canadians floss even five times a week. Brushing only cleans the surface of your teeth, leaving plaque—a sticky film filled with bacteria—to build up in between teeth and cause problems. This was why floss was developed, says Dempster.
While flossing is ideal, other tools can mimic what it does. Dempster says a Sulcabrush (a small, angled brush) or Soft-Picks (which look like toothpicks with rubber bristles on them) can help create a routine, since using these tools gets you into the habit of flossing daily—cleaning between your teeth in any way is better than not at all. And while a Waterpik, which uses water pressure to clean between your teeth, may claim to have the same effect as flossing, Dempster says that it’s more effective for flushing out food but doesn’t help with plaque, which is sticky and doesn’t wash off well with just water. Plaque requires the sort of mechanical removal that flossing provides.
Teeth whitening isn’t new—ancient Romans used a mixture of urine (which contains ammonia) and goat milk for their smiles.
Today, an increasing number of better-smelling products designed for at-home use are available to us. However, it’s normal for teeth to darken as we get older. Over time, enamel—the hard mineral layer that protects our teeth—gets stained or worn down, exposing dentin—a yellowish tissue—underneath. “I think the pressure to whiten your teeth is more of a societal pressure,” Dempster says.
This societal pressure might be putting our teeth at risk. “I’m not convinced that there’s a safe way to whiten your teeth,” she adds. Some whitening products, like strips, contain carbamide or hydrogen peroxides, which act as bleaching agents that penetrate part of the tooth to remove stains. In the process, they can increase tooth sensitivity or irritate gums, and Dempster says there’s emerging evidence that whitening can directly damage teeth.
At-home products don’t allow for a lot of control by the user, so it’s best to talk to your dentist or hygienist if you’re really eager for pearly whites. They can guide you in choosing the right whitening products or let you know if you should opt for an in-office treatment to ensure that you don’t cause your teeth any damage.
Fluoride is a mineral found naturally in our teeth and bones. It’s also added to some municipal water supplies and found in products like toothpaste because it helps to strengthen enamel. For all its benefits, though, this mineral is shrouded in controversy.
Some people believe that too much fluoride can cause cancer when it accumulates in the bones. But several studies in different populations have been unable to find a strong link between cancer and fluoride, and organizations such as the World Health Organization, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service and Canada’s National Research Council have said that there is no direct association between fluoride and cancer. In fact, water fluoridation is associated with a 20 to 30 percent reduction in tooth decay at the population level.
In Canada, municipalities decide whether to fluoridate their water. Toronto’s water, for example, has been fluoridated since 1963, and as of 2017, about 39 percent of Canadians had access to fluoridated water.
In addition to brushing, some people use tongue cleaning tools, such as tongue scrapers. While many do it to control bad breath, the goal of cleaning the tongue is actually to remove plaque and bacteria that build up on it.
While some professionals say tongue scrapers can do a better job than toothbrushes, Dempster says you can clean your tongue just as easily with a toothbrush as you can with a special scraping tool. The best way to do this is by using your brush to lightly scrape from back to front, while avoiding activating your gag reflex.
Now that you’ve learned expert-approved dental tips, find out about common dental issues and what they say about your overall health.