Quiz: Are You Brushing Your Teeth Wrong?

If you think you’ve been brushing your teeth the right way all these years, Carole Palmer, professor of public health in community service at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, has some news for you: Most people make simple mistakes that can do their teeth serious damage.

Are you one of them? Take our quiz to find out -- and start brushing right tonight.

1. True or False? The harder the toothbrush bristles, the better.

False. Soft bristles are safest for teeth and gums.

Palmer suggests choosing a soft nylon-bristle brush. Bristles that are too hard will irritate your gums and can erode the enamel on your teeth. Your toothbrush should also be multi-tufted -- meaning it has as many little bristles as possible to get between teeth and around gums better.

2. True or False? The goal of brushing after eating is to remove food particles from your teeth.

It’s more important to remove plaque.

Contrary to popular belief, brushing your teeth is essential because you’re trying to remove plaque, not food debris, says Palmer. Plaque takes a while to form, so brushing doesn’t have to be done right after meals -- although it can help prevent staining from foods like berries or coffee. Still, Palmer recommends brushing twice a day to prevent cavities. 

3. True or False? Jiggling the brush up and down is the most effective brushing method.

True. Jiggling the brush up and down is better.

Palmer recommends you hold the brush down against the gumline at a 45-degree angle and then jiggle it in that spot for about 10 seconds before moving on to the next area. After you’ve brushed along the entirety of your gums, use the same motion to clean the surfaces of your teeth, this time holding your brush at a 90-degree angle. Finish by scraping your brush against your tongue in a downward motion to get rid of bacteria there.

4. True or False? It’s best to floss after brushing.

False. You’ll remove more plaque by flossing first.

Floss gets down into the gumline and helps remove plaque that your toothbrush can’t reach, so it makes the most sense to floss and then brush: That way you’ll loosen the plaque and then brush it away. If you use mouthwash, you should do that last.

5. True or False? If you can’t see plaque on your teeth, it means you removed it all.

False. There could be plenty left, ready to do damage.

“Plaque is clear and colorless,” says Palmer. “I can tell you that you have a mouthful of plaque right now, but you won’t believe it until you see it for yourself.” The next time you go to the dentist, ask for a few extra pink tablets -- the ones that reveal where you have dental plaque, suggests Palmer. Then chew them up at home from time to time and you’ll see all the spots you usually miss.

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Best Supplements for Strong Teeth

I’m 56, but my teeth and gums don’t look a day over 30. And it’s not just because I’m a dentist. Many people my age have gums that have receded, which means their gums have essentially pulled away from their teeth and created pockets where bacteria thrive. If the pockets grow large enough, teeth become loose.

To prevent this, do what I do: Brush, floss, eat right and take a couple of extra nutrients. Here, my four must-have supplements for strong teeth and healthy gums:

Every day, I chew a supplement that contains 60 milligrams of coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, an antioxidant that helps maintain the soft tissues in your body -- including your gums. Some early research suggests that taking CoQ10 can even help shrink the pockets caused by gum disease.

My CoQ10 chewable supplement also contains calcium, a mineral found in your jawbone. If you don’t get enough calcium, your jaw weakens, loosening your teeth. Men and women between the ages of 19 and 49 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, while those over 50, like me, require 1,200 milligrams. A cup of milk or yogurt packs about 300 milligrams, and an ounce of most cheeses has about 200 milligrams. You can find a cool calcium calculator at BestBonesForever.gov. It’s designed for teens -- the group that has the highest calcium requirements -- but anyone can use it by inputting his or her age.

Vitamin D
To absorb calcium, your body needs vitamin D. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one-third of Americans don’t get enough. I follow the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation and get at least 400 IU daily. Milk has about 100 IU per cup, and a 3-ounce serving of fattier fish, like salmon or mackerel, contains about 300 IU. If you don’t drink milk or eat fish, you could probably use a supplement of 400 IU daily.

Vitamin C
There’s one more super-important nutrient for your teeth: vitamin C. It’s a building block for collagen, which helps keep your teeth attached to your gums. A study in the Journal of Periodontology found that men and women who consumed fewer than 60 milligrams of vitamin C daily were 150 percent more likely to have gum disease than people who took in at least 180 milligrams. Fruit and veggies are the major sources of vitamin C (one orange alone has 60 milligrams). I get enough C in my diet, but if you don’t, consider taking a supplement.

Tip: Avoid Fizzy Supplements
Don’t buy the chewable vitamin C tablets or any kind of supplement that fizzes when you dissolve it in water. Chewable and fizzy vitamins lower the pH in your mouth and erode your tooth enamel. In fact, a recent study from the University of Helsinki found that fizzy supplements, including those that contain calcium, caused teeth to lose minerals. The worst offenders were the fizzy vitamin C supplements. They corroded the teeth so much that the layer below the enamel was exposed.

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Brush Your Way to Better Sex

Preventing cavities isn’t the only reason to take care of your teeth. According to a recent survey, 50 percent of people report that a white, healthy smile is the first thing that attracts them to someone.

If your teeth look good, it sends the message that you’re taking good care of yourself. And knowing you can flash a killer smile is a big confidence-builder when you meet someone new.

Luckily, it doesn’t take much effort or time to go from so-so to sensational. Here are the tips I give my patients to improve their dental health, boost their sex appeal and actually have better sex:

1. Whiten up. Even if you have healthy teeth, if they’re a dingy color, it can make you look older and less attractive. To keep stains away, use an electric toothbrush and whitening toothpaste every day. Then, once every six months (after your dental cleaning), use an at-home whitening treatment to keep teeth looking bright.

2. Banish bad breath. Nothing is a bigger turnoff than bad breath. Brushing twice daily is important, but don’t forget to floss. Bacteria that create a stink sometimes lurk in the gum tissue, and they need to be loosened with floss so they can be brushed away. An alcohol-free rinse also will help keep breath fresh.

3. Improve blood flow. No doubt about it: Red, puffy gums are unattractive. Worse, when your gums become inflamed, the problem isn’t confined to your mouth. The inflammation can cause narrowing of the blood vessels throughout your body, resulting in a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and even trouble maintaining an erection.

Daily brushing, flossing and regular dental cleanings are the key to keeping gums -- and the rest of you -- healthy. If your gums are red and puffy, or if they bleed easily, see your dentist right away. Much more than your sex life might be at stake.

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Bad Breath Be Gone!

Could you have bad breath? It’s something most of us don’t think about, especially since it’s difficult to discern odors coming from your own mouth. But according to a recent report from the American Dental Association, more than 50 percent of us suffer from halitosis -- and many of us don’t even know it. But fret not. Here are the most common causes of bad breath -- and what you can do about them.

Bad Breath Common Cause 1: Your Diet

This is the most easily correctible cause of halitosis, commonly known as bad breath. Some foods that bring on bad breath are obvious -- onions and garlic, for example. But your entire way of eating could be at fault. Low-carb diets are notorious for bringing on bad breath because they lead to ketosis, a condition in which foul-smelling chemicals called ketones are released in your breath when your body burns fat instead of carbs for energy. This, in turn, leads to halitosis.

What to do: In addition to eliminating odor-causing foods and avoiding low-carb diets, your best bet is to brush your teeth immediately after eating and use mouthwash, which will temporarily keep bad breath at bay. For long-term prevention, get in the habit of brushing the back of your tongue. Studies show it can reduce bad breath by up to 70 percent.

Bad Breath Common Cause 2: Gum Disease

If you’ve given the boot to garlic and anchovies but your stinkbreath remains, you likely have some sort of periodontal disease. “The most common reasons for chronic halitosis are periodontal diseases, and these are most likely caused by not brushing and flossing regularly and correctly and by failing to visit a dentist at least twice a year,” says Dr. Ruchi Nijjar Sahota, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association and a dentist in Fremont, Calif.

What to do: Finally learn to brush and floss properly (get some great tips here) and just do it already! In addition, schedule a visit with your dentist ASAP. Only a dentist can remove bacteria that have seeped under the gums.

Bad Breath Common Cause 3: Dry Mouth

Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is often overlooked as a reason for bad breath. Dry mouth can be caused by emotional stress and the hormonal changes of pregnancy and menopause, as well as many medications and illnesses. (See common cause No. 4 below.) Whatever the cause, when there isn’t adequate saliva to wash away food and neutralize the acids produced by plaque, it can bring on bad breath as well as tooth decay.

“People don’t realize they have dry mouth,” says Sahota. “I ask my patients, do you find your mouth is sticky? Do you want water but not have time to drink it?”

What to do: If your mouth is dry, drink lots of water and swish it around in your mouth for at least 20 seconds to loosen food particles, which bacteria can feed on. Getting a prescription for artificial saliva from your dentist can help greatly. But so can chewing sugarless gum, which promotes saliva production. Ironically, breath mints that contain sugar and/or alcohol can actually hurt your breath in the long run, as alcohol contributes to dry mouth and sugar produces even more bacteria.

Bad Breath Common Cause 4: Medications or Illness

If your bad breath won’t go away, keep a log of the foods you eat and the medications you take. Many prescriptions and medications (including antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers and antidepressants) may be contributing to your halitosis.

What to do: Talk to your dentist. Let him know if you’ve had surgery or have been sick since your last visit. If your halitosis isn’t caused by your diet, periodontal disease or dry mouth, it could be the sign of a medical condition -- such as postnasal drip or a respiratory tract infection -- in which case you will be referred to a medical doctor.

If you think you might have halitosis, don’t be afraid to ask someone. You can’t fix the problem if there’s shame in your game. “If you have bad breath every day, look into what’s happening,” says Sahota. Your loved ones will be happy you did.

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Healthy Teeth at Any Age

You can have a stunning smile and healthy teeth at any age -- you just need to know how to prepare. “Each decade of life poses different challenges for your teeth,” says Arthur Weiner, a dentist, spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry and professor at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. “But with regular dental checkups, you can keep on top of these concerns.”

Exactly what should you (and your doc) be on the lookout for? Here’s the dish on how to keep your teeth healthy with age, decade by decade.

Healthy Teeth: Your 30s

Your life might be busier (wedding, kids, more job responsibilities), but all should be pretty calm in your mouth. “These are the maintenance years for the dental work you had done in your teens and early 20s,” says Weiner. There are, however, a few key issues to discuss with your dentist.
  • Soothe Sensitive Teeth: If you feel twinges of pain when you eat something particularly hot or cold, then the middle layer of your tooth (aka dentin) may have become exposed. “People in their late 20s and early 30s tend to have the most sensitive teeth, and it’s often because they brush too hard,” says Gordon Isbell III, a dentist in Gadsden, Ala. One remedy: Switch to a soft-bristled toothbrush and don’t scrub your teeth like you’re cleaning the bathtub. Light pressure sweeps away the gunk, without taking off tooth enamel.
  • Plan for Baby: Hormonal changes, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy, can make your gums swollen and puffy. If you’re planning on being in the pink or blue, schedule your dental checkup right before you start trying to conceive. Your dentist can remove any plaque you’ve built up since your last appointment so your gums will be less likely to act up. Try to brush after episodes of morning sickness to get rid of the acid in your mouth. Otherwise, it may harm tooth enamel.
  • Rethink Your Drink: People in their 30s drink a lot of beverages that stain teeth or damage enamel, including soda, coffee and sports drinks. “Cutting back now might save you from cosmetic work in the future,” says Weiner. Swap soda and sports drinks for water (even the no-cal flavored kind). If you need your coffee fix, don’t linger with your mug. Nursing a cup for a couple of hours causes way more staining than finishing it in 15 minutes.

Healthy Teeth: Your 40s

Expect some tooth repairs during this decade -- dental work doesn’t last forever. Here’s what you might have to spruce up.
  • Check Old Fillings: “If you had a cavity filled 15 or 20 years ago, it’s probably going to wear out soon,” says Weiner. You may not notice anything, but your dentist can spot a crack or other deterioration during a checkup and simply replace the filling. If left untreated, however, food particles can work their way under a cracked filling, causing further decay or even a painful infection.
  • Guard Against Grinding: Stress usually ratchets up in your 40s, and a recent German study of 69 adults found that the most tense participants were also the most likely to grind or clench their teeth. It’s more than a bad habit: It can wear down tooth enamel and break crowns or other dental work, for starters. Since most tooth grinding happens during sleep, you might not even know you do it until your spouse tells you. If you suspect you’re becoming a grinder, avoid caffeine and alcohol at night (they can trigger grating too), try to find ways to reduce stress in your life, and talk to your dentist about getting a mouth guard that can prevent the problem.
  • Brighten Your Smile: Your pearly whites may not be so white anymore, since the outer layer of enamel can wear away and reveal the yellower dentin. “Years of coffee and tea can cause staining too,” says Isbell. Stains from food and drinks generally don’t respond as well to whitening as the yellow discoloration that comes with age. Your dentist will be able to tell you the best options based on the cause and extent of the discoloration -- and based on how much money you’re willing to spend on a brighter smile.

Healthy Teeth: Your 50s, 60s and Beyond

These decades can make or break your future oral health. “Lots of problems start to set in during these years, and you have to take care of them right away to keep your teeth healthy,” says Isbell. The three biggies:
  • Deal With Gum Disease: You might have had some plaque and swollen gums when you were younger, but that’s child’s play in comparison to the deepening pockets that develop as gums start to separate from teeth. “Hormonal changes and bone loss associated with menopause tend to accelerate gum disease,” says Weiner. Your doctor may ask you to come in for cleanings more often. This time around, you’ll have to get deep cleanings (called scaling and root planning) to remove even more plaque. And of course, it’s more important than ever to floss!
  • Keep Your Mouth Moist: Your mouth produces less saliva as you get older -- a real bummer, since saliva often washes away decay-causing bacteria. If you’ve started taking a new medication -- especially one for depression, high blood pressure or high cholesterol -- it’s a double-whammy because these can cause dry mouth too. “Your dentist may recommend chewing a sugarless gum to increase saliva flow,” says Isbell.
  • Handle Arthritis: This joint disease may interfere with how well you can brush your teeth. If you don’t think you’re doing as good of a job as usual, consider switching from a manual to an electric toothbrush, which can do more of the work for you.

What do you do to maintain healthy teeth? Tell us below or connect with us @Completely_You