Teeth cleaning guide

Brushing with fluoride toothpaste twice a day for at least two minutes at a time will help keep your teeth and mouth healthy.

Your mouth contains bacteria, which live on your teeth, gums, lips and tongue. Some bacteria are healthy if present in the right place, at the right time and in the right numbers. Our body needs these 'friendly' bacteria to function. Other bacteria can be harmful and cause problems, especially if they attach themselves, in the form of plaque, to the enamel that covers your teeth.

Plaque is a film of bacteria that coats the teeth. These bacteria feed on the sugars in our food and drink, and they produce acids that can destroy tooth enamel and cause decay.

Plaque forms if you don’t brush your teeth properly or look after your gums, which enables bacteria to multiply. Plaque contributes to gum disease, tooth decay and cavities.

Toothbrush tips

  • Replace your brush or brush attachment every three months.
  • Never share your toothbrush as this can spread infections.
  • Brush your teeth twice daily with fluoride toothpaste for at least two minutes.

When should I brush my teeth?
Brush your teeth for at least two minutes in the morning before breakfast and last thing at night before you go to bed (and ideally at least an hour after your evening meal).

Brushing your teeth straight after a meal can damage your teeth, especially if you've had fruit, fizzy drinks, wine or any other food that contains acid. This is because tooth enamel is softened by the acid and can be worn away by brushing. Waiting an hour gives your saliva chance to neutralise the acid.

Avoid frequent intake of acidic food and drinks – keep them to meal times.

Should I use an electric or manual toothbrush?
The type of toothbrush you use is important. For most adults, a brush with a small head and a compact, angled arrangement of long and short, round-end bristles (filaments) is fine. Medium or soft bristles are best for most people. If in doubt, ask your dentist.

An electric brush with an oscillating or rotating head will reduce plaque and the risk of developing gum disease more effectively.

What type of toothpaste should I use?
The cleansing agents and particles in toothpaste help to remove plaque from your teeth, keeping them clean and healthy.

Most toothpastes contain fluoride, which helps to prevent and control cavities. It’s important to use a toothpaste with the right concentration of fluoride for you or your child. Check the packaging to find out how much fluoride each brand contains.

  • Children aged up to three: use a smear of toothpaste containing no less than 1,000ppm (parts per million) fluoride. This means you can use the family toothpaste and don't need a special baby toothpaste.
  • Children aged three to six: use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste containing 1,350-1,500ppm fluoride.
  • Adults: use a toothpaste that contains at least 1,450ppm fluoride.

Brushing tips
The British Dental Health Foundation gives the following advice on how to brush your teeth:

  1. Place the head of your toothbrush against your teeth, then tilt the bristle tips to a 45 degree angle against the gum line. Move the brush in small circular movements, several times, on all the surfaces of every tooth.
  2. Brush the outer surfaces of each tooth, upper and lower, keeping the bristles angled against the gum line.
  3. Use the same method on the inside surfaces of all your teeth.
  4. Brush the chewing surfaces of the teeth.
  5. To clean the inside surfaces of the front teeth, tilt the brush vertically and make several small circular strokes with the toe (the front part) of the brush.
  6. Brushing your tongue will freshen your breath and clean your mouth by removing bacteria.

Flossing isn't just for dislodging food wedged between your teeth. Regular flossing may reduce gum disease and bad breath by removing the bacterial film (plaque) that forms along the gum line.

How to floss:

  1. Take 30-45cm (12-18 inches) of floss and grasp it so that you have a couple of inches of floss taut between your hands.
  2. Slip the floss between the teeth and into the area between your teeth and gums, as far as it will go.
  3. Floss with eight to 10 strokes, up and down between each tooth, to dislodge food and plaque.
  4. Floss at least once a day. The most important time to floss is before going to bed. 
  5. You can floss before or after brushing.

Should I use mouthwash?
Mouthwashes containing fluoride can be beneficial. Some may contain chlorhexidine or other antiseptic chemicals. These may improve plaque control and gum health when used in addition to tooth brushing. Or they can be used alone if you can't brush your teeth for some reason. Mouthwashes that contain essential oils or other chemicals aren’t as effective.

Many mouthwashes contain alcohol, so they're not suitable for children as they could swallow them accidentally. If you use a mouthwash with alcohol, you may get a very dry mouth and dry, cracked lips due to the drying effect of the alcohol. You can avoid this by using an alcohol-free mouthwash instead.

The little extras

  1. Toothpicks. Avoid using toothpicks as you could cause your gums to bleed, which can lead to an infection. Floss is gentler on your teeth and gums.
  2. Interdental brushes. These are a better way to clean between your teeth than toothpicks.
  3. Plaque-disclosing tablets. These work by dyeing plaque either blue or red. They dye all bacteria, but because your mouth contains a lot of "friendly" bacteria, the tongue and gums also get dyed. You don't need to clean this off, but as the staining can last for some hours, it’s best to use these tablets at bedtime or when you're not expecting visitors.

Common Q and As

Read answers to the most common questions that people have about dental health, including:


Last reviewed: 13/12/2009

Next review due: 13/12/2011


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Comments are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Parisa Safaei said on 24 September 2011

I agree with the American Dental Association that dental hygiene calls for two practices in addition to the above:

- regular dental cleanings by a professional
- a proper diet and limited snacking

I think that the former addresses the tartar that merely brushing teeth cannot always prevent or remove; and that the latter can mitigate frequent or serious acid erosion of teeth (tooth decay).

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User465407 said on 18 June 2010

Why Dentists have become privatised I will never understand... Oh yeah the money.

However, I at least thought dentists were decent enough people. For my last appointment I had two minor cavities that needed to be filled. Willing to pay the costs, I asked him to to fill both of them up. Instead he only filled one and left the other one 'to check at the next check-up'. I pressed on, pleading him to at least look at the other one or even to suggest dental tools to clean the cavity.

Just Floss

He said. Fine, I'll floss. But that only cleans in between teeth- not the actual cavity. Now I'm looking at the increasingly large hole that used to be that small cavity. Meaning more treatment needed and more money involved. Thanks a lot- for nothing.

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DanDoherty said on 18 January 2010

I have to agree, same thing My dentist told me I had to have a front bottom tooth removed because it wasnt straight!!!

I asked him was it a healthy tooth, he said well yes but, I stopped him there simple as that its a healthy tooth why remove it. money,money,money

I dont think that dentists even know the complexity of our teeth. I bet 50 years from now we will laugh at techniques used by modern dentists, just like we laugh about victorian mediacl practices today.

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Fern58 said on 04 January 2010

Despite attending an NHS dentist regularly since childhood and brushing my teeth twice/three times daily, I have lost teeth due to gum disease. I repeatedly asked my NHS dentist if there was any treatment I could have in addition to sacle and polish he carried out, but was told there wasn't and eventually I would lose all my teeth!! I may add that I was never offered antibiotic treatment as mentioned on this website. I trusted my dentist and never sought a second opinion - big mistake! Since having internet access, I have read of quite a few treatments available privately which could have saved my teeth. Now I look forward to the expense of alternatives, bad fitting NHS partial dentures or costly implants!!!!!

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Kiumars said on 20 September 2008

My dentist has been insisting on extracting my teeth for years because he makes more money (in short term) in extracting them than repairing them! I have managed to keep the teeth that were condemned to death by my dentist for over 10 years now! Don’t trust the doctors; they are businessmen in white overalls (like butchers!).

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