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Dental Care 101: What to Know About Teeth Whitening, the Best Products, and More

Woman brushing teeth
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
March 24, 2022

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Health trends may come and go but dental hygiene is forever. And while you might think you’ve got the basics nailed when it comes to brushing and general care, the market for products that help you clean and whiten your teeth can be vast and overwhelming. To break it all down for ya, we chatted with New York–based dentists Dr. Lauren Becker and Dr. Alexandra Simpson (...and their hygienists, Eric Nicoti and Johanna Rutitskiy). We’ll be covering everything from brushing tips to the best whitening recs. Say cheese.

Teeth-cleaning basics

  • Brush your teeth twice a day (for two minutes each time) and floss at night. “There's no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to taking care of your teeth,” Becker says. And in an ideal world, you’ll want regular visits to your dentist for cleaning twice a year. 

  • Strong, healthy enamel is the goal. That’s because the stronger your enamel (that’s the hard outer layer of your teeth), the less likely your teeth are to get cavities or break in structure.  

  • The best time to brush your teeth in the AM is first thing. Then drink your coffee or tea, wait 30 minutes (and drink water to help neutralize the pH in your mouth) if you want to brush again, Simpson says. The reason? If you drink an acidic liquid like coffee or OJ and brush immediately after, you’re brushing the acid right onto your teeth and breaking down your enamel…which is a no-no. 

  • “Anything that stains a white T-shirt is going to stain your teeth,” Becker says. Think: dark sauces, dark liquids, jam, wine, chocolate, etc. 

  • Traditional string floss > floss picks > no floss. String “is the most effective form of flossing and cleaning in between your teeth,” Becker says. That’s because the string lets you floss the front, middle, and side of your tooth, whereas it’s harder to get that manipulation and reach with the picks, according to Becker. But…if the only way you’re going to floss at all is with picks, then that’s okay. Because any sort of flossing > no flossing at all.

Toothbrush care and basics

  • Replace your toothbrush heads every three to four months. Or more often if the bristles are frayed. Because PSA: The effectiveness of your brush lessens as the bristles get worn.

  • Soft-bristled toothbrushes for the win. And when using yours, apply gentle pressure. Because yes, there is such a thing as brushing too hard. Plus, it’ll ensure you lessen the risk of any gum or enamel damage.

  • Electric toothbrushes are great because the bristles can vibrate, oscillate, and move. And that’s what’s going to help free the debris and grime from your teeth. Plus, they do a lot of the work for you, so they’re solid options for people with poor dexterity. PS: According to the American Dental Association (ADA), manual toothbrushes can still be an effective way to remove plaque. So talk to your dentist about which is best for you.

  • Let your brush dry upright in open air after use. That’s especially important when you travel. According to the ADA, it’s best not to put your wet brush back in a closed container right away because that’ll promote microbial growth. Gross.

Other things to keep in mind when you’re shopping for dental care products

  • Stay away from over-the-counter night guards. It’s going to do more harm than help, Becker says. That’s because they’re likely not properly fitted nor do they take your specific bite into account and can sometimes even exacerbate your issue, she says. So if you think you’re grinding your teeth, clenching or suffering from TMJ, go to your dentist — not your local pharmacy. 

  • Don’t forget to brush your tongue. Some experts believe it helps curb bad breath. You can scoop up a special scraper tool or just use your toothbrush. Either way, your tongue is a part of your mouth and bacteria can build up in its crevices. So it needs to be cared for too.

  • Use toothpaste with fluoride. It strengthens your enamel, which, reminder, helps make your pearly whites more decay-resistant and less susceptible to breakdown and cavities. 

  • Think twice about using whitening products with charcoal. It’s abrasive. And while charcoal does whiten your teeth, it does so because it strips the enamel from your teeth. So avoid ’em if you can.

Products that’ll help you improve your oral hygiene

Oral-B electric toothbrush

An affordable electric toothbrush experts stand behind…

This Oral-B battery-powered brush is a winner. It has the magic trifecta of bristles that oscillate, rotate, and pulsate, which is said to help remove up to 300% more plaque on the gumline than a regular, manual toothbrush. There’s a pressure sensor on it that stops the movements if you’re brushing too hard. Plus, there’s an in-handle timer so you can stay on track for the recommended two minutes. With over 51K reviews, and slew of recs from experts, you can’t go wrong with this. Psst…want another option? HQ’rs love this splurge-worthy one. ($39.99, Amazon)

Buy it
Sensodyne Pronamel toothpaste

Toothpaste for anyone with sensitive teeth or gums…

Put in the work first, then whiten. This Sensodyne Pronamel toothpaste has fluoride in it and helps strengthen the enamel on your teeth. It delivers minerals to your enamel layer that can help protect your teeth from acid erosion (thanks to stuff like coffee, tea, wine) and make them stronger and less sensitive for a whitening process later. Oh, and it also helps remove stains and restore the natural whiteness of your teeth. Smile big. ($18.72/3 pack, Amazon)

Buy it
Crest whitening toothpaste

Whitening toothpaste that actually works

Enter: this two-step treatment from Crest. For step one, you’ll get a fluoride cleanser that cleans your teeth thoroughly and freshens your mouth. And then for step two, you’ll use the brand’s whitening gel finisher. You’ll do one minute using each without rinsing in between. “The best over-the-counter whitening product that I’ve found patients have the most success with is [this],” Becker says. “Most whitening toothpastes don’t work — this does,” she says. ($12.29, Amazon)

Buy it
Crest Whitestrips

The best over-the-counter whitening product…

Crest strips for the win. These non-slip, professional-level, flavorless strips are enamel safe — and can last for 12 months. Just lay them on your teeth for 30 minutes (you’ll get ones for your upper and lower babes), and you’ll be on your merry way to having the pearliest whites. They have over 58K reviews and come recommended by dentists, in part, because of the hydrogen peroxide in them. That’s the same ingredient you’d find in a professional whitener at a dentist’s office — just at a lower percentage. Before-and-after pics, coming right up. ($29.99/22 pack)

Buy it
Glide floss

A budget-friendly floss the whole family can use…

Simpson recs this silky-smooth, shred-resistant, mint-flavored floss — a great choice for when you want an effective option that won’t break the bank. It can get into tight spaces, which is what you want from your nightly floss. And it’s tough on your plaque but soft and gentle on your gums. Plus, it’ll leave you with a cool, clean feeling when you’re done. ($20.99/6 pack, Amazon)

Buy it

Coconut oil-infused floss that’ll get you excited to use it each night…

And just like that dental floss got disrupted. Becker highly recs Cocofloss, which is known for its flexible, soft-textured weave that makes it easily able to scrub away plaque and get into those tight spaces between your teeth. Think of the material like an exfoliating loofah, but for your teeth and gums. This eco-friendly, cruelty-free, toxin-free floss has aromatic fruit oils and a light coating of vegan wax that smells amazing. And with this pack, you’ll get 32 yards of floss — that’s about six months’ worth in recyclable packaging — so you’ll be set for quite a while. It’s also a perfect option for kids thanks to its cute packaging that’ll help encourage them to get flossing each night. ($27/3 pack, Cocofloss)

Buy it
Act mouthwash

A soothing mouthwash for anyone with dry mouth…

According to Simpson, thanks to the pandemic, she’s found that patients’ mouths are dry from not drinking enough water and breathing with masks on. So she recommends this anticavity fluoride rinse, which helps moisturize mouth tissue and strengthen teeth too. Unlike some other mouthwashes on the market, it doesn’t have any alcohol in it — which is a good thing. So you don’t have to worry about drying out even further. Sounds like a win win if you ask us. ($6.69, Amazon)

Buy it
Waterpik Aquarius

A Waterpik if you have trouble with traditional floss…

This one is reportedly up to 50% more effective than traditional floss and can remove up to 99.9% of plaque from your teeth. With more than 95K reviews (yep, you read that right) it’s a solid option for people with crowns, implants, braces, or other dental work that makes it hard to use string floss each night. The main reasons people love it? It has 10 pressure ranges, a massage mode that’ll stimulate your gums and help with circulation, and a timer that’ll help keep you on track. PS: The reservoir is also top-rack dishwasher-safe, so it makes for easy cleanup. ($72.07+, Amazon)

Buy it

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