There's No Time Like Summer for a Beautiful Smile
Of course you need to be careful and protect your skin from too much summer sun. But still, nothing goes better with healthy summer skin than a bright smile. And a bright smile is usually a sign of good oral health – that is, healthy teeth, gums, and mouth.
Because good dental health and cleanliness, also called hygiene, are important year-round, it's always a good time to review your basic skills.
Plaque: what it is, and why it's the bad guy
First, let's talk about plaque, the main factor in poor oral health and gum disease. The American Dental Association describes plaque as a "sticky film of bacteria" that covers your teeth. When you eat or drink, these bacteria release acids that attack tooth enamel, which is what your teeth are made of. Over time, attacks by this acid can break down tooth enamel. Weak tooth enamel is at risk for holes, also called "cavities." Once a cavity starts, it's like a hole in a shield: bacteria and germs can get into the vulnerable material inside the tooth. From there, it's easy for infection to set in. And infection is what leads to disease, which leads to tooth loss.
When we don't control plaque with daily brushing and cleaning between our teeth, it can harden and become what's called "calculus" or "tartar." When tartar builds up above the gum line, brushing and cleaning between teeth become more difficult. The gums can swell, and may bleed. This condition, "gingivitis," is the early stage of gum disease. And things only get worse from there.
The good news: it's not hard to protect yourself from plaque attacks.
Chances are, you already know what to do. Brush your teeth twice a day, and floss your teeth at least once a day. You can do more things, but these are your first line of defense for beating back plaque.
The ins and outs - and ups and downs and backs and forths - of brushing
The Mayo Clinic offers these tips:
Brush your teeth at least twice a day. Even better, brush after every meal.
Take your time. Make sure you do a good job. Get every corner, including the tops and backs of your teeth. Don't forget your tongue and the roof of your mouth!
Use the right stuff. All you need is fluoride toothpaste and a soft or extra-soft brush that fits easily into your mouth. An electric or battery-powered toothbrush is also good, especially if you have trouble brushing the traditional way.
How to brush: Hold your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle. Then use short back-and-forth strokes to gently brush all surfaces. Don't scrub your teeth too hard! This can lead to sore gums. Harsh brushing can also wear down tooth enamel over time, so it's better to brush more gently for a little longer.
Keep your toothbrush clean. Always rinse it when you're done brushing. Store it "bristles up" to help it dry completely. Don't keep your brush in a closed container. This can lead to bacterial growth.
Replace your brush every 3 - 4 months. When your toothbrush is worn, get a new one. Three or four months seems to be a toothbrush's average life span, but if yours looks "scrubby" before then, it's time to throw it away.
Don't forget to floss
There's nothing like dental floss for the places your toothbrush can't reach. In fact, most dentists say flossing is just as important as brushing. Flossing removes food particles from between teeth and under the gums, which lowers the risk of bacteria or infection. So try to floss at least once a day.
A few tips from the Mayo Clinic:
Use enough floss. Pull out about 18 inches of floss. Wind most of it around the middle finger on one hand. Wind the rest around the middle finger on the other.
Floss one tooth at a time. Use your thumbs and index fingers to gently pull the floss. Starting at your gum line, gently scrape the floss up your teeth to remove plaque and food. Be sure to floss all sides of your tooth. Unwind fresh floss for every tooth or two as you need it.
Waxed floss is easier for tight spaces. If you have trouble getting floss in between your teeth, try waxed floss. Floss holders, picks, and "interdental cleaning sticks" can also make things easier.
Don't give up. Even if seems like hard work at first, flossing can become second nature. And it's so important for a healthy mouth.
You can now buy mouth rinses that are designed to kill germs and strengthen teeth. Since you only have one set of teeth, every little bit helps!
Don't forget the dentist
Regular visits to the dentist are also very important for preventing gum disease and other problems. And because the early signs of some other health problems like diabetes might show up in your mouth, your dentist can also help spot those. The American Dental Association recommends seeing your dentist once or twice a year. And if you notice any of the following changes or problems, call your dentist right away:
- Pain or greater sensitivity to hot and cold
- Loose permanent (adult) teeth
- Tender or swollen gums
- Gums that bleed during brushing or flossing
- Gums pulling away from teeth
- An unusual taste in your mouth tht won't go away
- Chronic bad breath
Nutrition and dental health
The American Dental Association says that what you eat can make a difference to your dental health, too. The three big tips:
- Eat a balanced diet
- Limit snacks between meals
- Avoid drinks with lots of sugar
And, of course, whenever you can, brush your teeth after you eat or drink. If you can't brush, rinsing your mouth with water can still help remove some of the germs that cling to plaque.
Together, all these things will help keep a smile on your face, too. Here's to your health!