Dental Health 101: Your Guide to Healthy Teeth & Gums

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close-up of a Black woman smiling

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The health of your teeth and gums, and oral health in general, is more important than you might think. Decades of research has shown that oral health may strongly impact other areas of your health and even your overall quality of life. Your mouth contains a lot of bacteria, and if these populations aren’t kept under control, you may be at risk of infections, heart disease, pneumonia and certain birth complications, like low birth weight.

Aside from the pain, disability and discomfort caused by diseases in the mouth, oral health affects things like your ability to eat comfortably, speak well and even express emotions. This in turn may affect your social life, job and relationships. This makes good oral care absolutely essential.

Unfortunately, oral diseases are also very common and impact millions of Americans every year, regardless of age or background. Your mouth needs constant maintenance over the course of your life. From daily tasks like brushing your teeth to regular dental checkups, there are things you can and should do to make sure your oral health is as good as it can be.

How to have a healthier mouth

Here, we break down exactly what you need to know about brushing your teeth, flossing, caring for your gums and straightening your teeth so you can make the most of your oral care routine for a healthier mouth.


Toothbrushing is the most basic and fundamental element of good oral healthcare, and many people are taught how to do it from a young age. Brushing your teeth removes dental plaque, a sticky substance that bacteria leave on the surface of your teeth. Without proper dental care, plaque builds up over time and is likely to cause tooth decay. It may be hard to see, so it’s important to brush every day, even when your teeth look clean.

The best way to brush your teeth

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), good toothbrushing techniques may make a difference in how effectively you clean your teeth. Which one you use depends on your particular needs, but there are some general guidelines.

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that most people place their toothbrush at a 45-degree angle against the line of their gum, as this helps to remove plaque from above and below the edge of the gum (called the gingival margin). You should brush by moving the toothbrush back and forth using quick, short strokes, or by using small circular motions. To clean the back of your front teeth, turn the brush vertically and make up-and-down strokes.

Whether you do it this way or use a different technique, make sure you brush all the surfaces of your teeth, including the front, back and top (the chewing surfaces).

How long should you brush your teeth?

The ADA recommends that you brush your teeth at least twice a day (usually in the morning and evening) and for at least two minutes each time. They also recommend using a soft-bristled brush and fluoride toothpaste, which has been shown to reduce cavities and help repair certain kinds of tooth damage.

Should you rinse after brushing your teeth?

Some experts, such as those at the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), say that you should spit out excess toothpaste after you’re done brushing but that you shouldn’t rinse your mouth out immediately. This is because the fluoride in the toothpaste builds up on your teeth as you brush, which helps to prevent tooth decay. If you rinse your mouth out too soon, you dilute the fluoride and make it less effective.

Buying the best toothbrush

There are many different types and styles of toothbrushes out there, and it may be hard to figure out which one is the most appropriate for your particular needs. Your dentist may be able to help you figure out the best option for your particular needs, and in general, there are some good overall guidelines that work well for most people.

The first thing to consider is whether you’re using a manual or powered toothbrush. Manual toothbrushes are the most common type and are usually the most affordable. They are simple to use and come in a wide range of styles. Powered toothbrushes have a battery-powered head that performs the brushing action for you. They are more convenient for many people, such as those who have manual dexterity limitations, but they’re also more expensive. Both types have been shown to be equally effective at removing plaque if used correctly, so which you choose is down to your own needs and preferences.

Toothbrushes that have either multiple levels of bristles or angled bristles do a better job than ones with standard, flat-trimmed bristles. It is also recommended to use brushes with soft bristles to prevent damage to the edges of your gums when you brush. While medium-firm bristles may remove plaque, the risk of gum damage means that they aren’t recommended for most people.

It is highly recommended that any brush you use carries the ADA Seal of Acceptance. This is usually found on the packaging. The seal shows that the ADA has determined that the brush is safe to use and effective at cleaning your teeth and gums. Any new toothbrush that is released that’s significantly different from an accepted design has to go through tests before getting approved for the Seal of Acceptance. This involves clinical studies that show that the toothbrush is safe and effective.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the ADA set the criteria that is used in the tests for the Seal of Acceptance for all types of toothbrushes. These include:

  • All parts are safe to use in the mouth

  • The bristles don’t have any sharp or jagged parts

  • The handle is durable enough for normal use

  • The bristles won’t fall out when using the brush normally

  • It may be used by an average adult without supervision and reduce plaque and gum disease noticeably over 30 days

The ADA provides lists of both manual and powered brushes that have been approved, so check that yours is approved before you buy.


How to floss your teeth

Flossing is also an important part of basic, everyday oral healthcare. Plaque may build up between your teeth in places that are hard to reach while brushing. Flossing is the best way to remove this buildup before it becomes a problem. It’s recommended that you floss at least once per day.

To use dental floss, NIDCR recommends first taking a section of floss about two feet long and wrapping the ends around the middle finger of each hand, then gripping each end of the floss between your thumb and forefinger. Move the floss into the gaps between your teeth gently, until it touches the edge of your gum. Be careful not to force the floss, as it could damage your gums. Fold the floss around the side of each tooth in a “C” shape and slide it up and down to remove the plaque. Repeat the process for each of your teeth until you’re done.

If you find it too difficult to use floss, there are a few tools and alternatives available that may make the process easier:

  • Floss holders are small tools that hold the floss so that you don’t need to wrap it around your fingers.

  • Floss threaders may help you move the floss through tight spaces between your teeth.

  • Water flossers are handheld devices that remove the plaque using a pressurized water spray.

  • Interdental brushes are a special type of brush specifically designed to clean between your teeth.

  • Wooden or plastic toothpicks are small, pointed sticks that may be used to manually remove plaque and other debris.

Should you floss before or after brushing your teeth?

It doesn’t make any difference whether you floss before or after brushing; the results will be the same either way. The important thing is that you’re thorough and floss regularly.

Gum health

Your teeth aren’t the only things to think about when it comes to your oral health. Gum (periodontal) disease, caused by infections that get into the tissues of your gums, is also a major problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46% of American adults over 30 have gum disease, and about 9% show especially severe signs.

Fortunately, the same basic dental care you use for your teeth is also an appropriate way of keeping gum disease at bay. Good brushing and flossing habits, regular checkups with your dentist and not smoking may all significantly reduce your risk of gum disease.

How to straighten teeth

Many people have issues with things like crooked teeth, teeth with large gaps or teeth that don’t fit comfortably together. These don’t just affect your appearance; they may also increase your risk of cavities and gum disease, or even make it difficult to talk and chew. Dentists and orthodontists offer a few different methods for straightening your teeth, depending on your specific needs.


Braces are special fixtures or brackets attached to your teeth with glue. They may be metallic or tooth-colored and attached to the front or back of your teeth. Braces work by connecting the brackets with a wire or rubber band, which is then tightened over time to gradually move your teeth without damaging them.

You typically visit the dentist or orthodontist every 4 to 6 weeks to have the wire or band adjusted until you’re done with them. How long you need them for depends on how much realignment your teeth need when you start the treatment. Your braces are usually fixed to your teeth for the whole length of your treatment.


Aligners are plastic trays shaped specifically for your mouth in order to move your teeth slowly. Typically, your dentist or orthodontist will make a digital scan of your mouth using either a camera or by taking a mold. Then, they use a computer system to create a treatment plan for moving your teeth from their current position to the one you want.

The treatment plan usually involves multiple stages, and a new aligner is created for each stage, which you swap out at the beginning of each stage until your treatment is complete. You may remove your aligner at any time, but you should only do so when eating or brushing your teeth in most cases.

Overall dental care

Even if you do everything possible to care for your teeth and gums at home, it’s still important to make regular trips to your dentist. This is also true if you have dentures or have lost all of your natural teeth. At least once a year, you should go to the dentist for checkups to make sure everything is healthy and get a professional cleaning.

If fear of the dentist or dental procedures is preventing you from getting regular checkups, know that you’re not alone and that help is available. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 36% of adults in the United States are afraid of dental treatment. If this sounds like you, seek out a dentist who is experienced with people who have dental fear, anxiety or phobia. They should be able to make you feel at ease and in control of your appointments, and they may also be able to prescribe medication if needed. Counseling or psychotherapy may also help.

Summary of dental health 101

Good oral healthcare is a lifelong process. Tooth and gum problems affect many people throughout their lives, and no one is immune from them, even if their teeth look like they’re in great condition. Fortunately, with consistent cleaning habits and regular visits to the dentist, you may greatly reduce your risk of oral health problems, as well as deal with any problems you do get much more successfully.


American Dental Association (ADA): Toothbrushing Methods.

National Health Service (NHS) UK: How to Keep Your Teeth Clean.

American Dental Association (ADA): Manual Toothbrushes.

American Dental Association (ADA): Powered Toothbrushes.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI): What’s the Best Way to Brush Your Teeth?

American Dental Association (ADA): ADA Seal of Acceptance.

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR): Oral Hygiene.

American Dental Association (ADA): Floss/Interdental Cleaners.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Adult Oral Health.

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR): Periodontal (Gum) Disease.

American Dental Association (ADA): Straightening Your Smile.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): What Can Adults Do to Maintain Good Oral Health?

Cleveland Clinic: Dentophobia (Fear of Dentists).

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