How to brush your teeth better, starting today

Two experts — a dentist and a periodontist — share their tips and techniques

Two experts — a dentist and a periodontist — share their tips and techniques

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Even if you have a great visit to the dentist, you may hear that you're not brushing 'properly', that you should switch to a softer brush, consider going electric. In short, when it comes to teeth brushing, you may be doing it wrong.

According to the Canadian Dental Association, which covers the basics of proper brushing on their website, we should be brushing our teeth for two to three minutes, at least twice a day; yet, a recent Statistics Canada survey found that fewer than three in four Canadians brush that often. Plus, the sheer amount of choice available these days when it comes to toothbrushes can be challenging to navigate — for starters: manual or electric, bamboo or plastic handles, microfine or firm bristles, and nylon or silicone heads (and that's before adding in optional accessories such as dental floss, water flossers, and tongue scrapers). 

To help us improve our daily teeth-brushing routine, avoid common dental pitfalls, and navigate the crowded oral-care tools landscape, we reached out to dentist Dr. Andrea Gelinas of Gelinas Dental Studio and Toronto-area periodontist Dr. Dara Lee for their top tips and must-haves. Here are their teeth-brushing dos and don'ts, tips for using the newest tools properly, and expert product recommendations.

There's no single perfect toothbrush for everyone 

"I think it's about finding the right thing for you. Because not everyone is going to like every product," says Dr. Gelinas. For example, you may prefer a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush over a plastic one because of environmental concerns, or look for an ultra-fine brush if you have gingivitis or gum recession — but those same models might not be relevant for someone else.   

For Dr. Lee, both electric and manual toothbrushes are good options "provided they are used properly," and replaced on a regular basis when the bristles are worn out. Electric toothbrushes can reach hard-to-access areas and can be simpler to use, says Dr. Lee, whereas with manual toothbrushes you'll have better control over pressure but need to focus more on technique. "[An electric brush] is already oscillating to clean away the plaque in the area…you just have to hold it there and let it do a lot of the work for you, and then move on to the next tooth," says Dr. Lee. 

Adjust your brushing style to your tool or device 

Both Dr. Gelinas and Dr. Lee emphasize that proper brushing techniques for electronic toothbrushes differ than those for manual ones. "Where people use [electric toothbrushes] incorrectly is when they move it around too much like they used to with their manual toothbrush, and then you can risk putting excess pressure and causing gum recession," says Dr. Lee.

"The electric brushes with those small oscillating heads, they oscillate at anywhere between 45,000 and 65,000 times a minute, so you actually don't need to move them," says Dr. Gelinas. "At that speed…you should be moving [the head] from tooth to tooth, but you don't necessarily need to do any movement while you're on the tooth." 

When using a manual toothbrush, Dr Gelinas recommends holding your brush at a 45-degree angle instead of perpendicular to your tooth, "Hold that at 45 degrees down toward the gum. This way, some of the bristles are going a little bit underneath the gum line, and you can either go back and forth or in a bit of a circular motion." 

Brush your gums

According to Dr. Lee, a common mistake that people make is forgetting to focus on their gums, too, when they are brushing their teeth, "This can leave plaque along the gum line which can then buildup and cause gum disease." 

Be gentle

"As a periodontist, I see a lot of patients or referrals for patients with gum recession which is often caused by brushing too hard — either with a hard toothbrush or improper brushing technique where they're scrubbing their teeth horizontally," says Dr. Lee. "This can cause the gums to recede and the roots to become exposed." 

Dr. Gelinas suggests avoiding medium and firm bristles on toothbrushes, which can be abrasive, and also cautions against brushing too hard — both can contribute to gum recession. But you don't have to get an extra soft or Microfine brush unless you have a specific need for them. "Those extra, extra soft bristle brushes are perfect for patients [with generalized gum recession]. If you're someone that doesn't have any recession and things are generally healthy, and you were to use a brush like that, you're probably not going to feel like things are as clean and fresh as we want them to be," says Dr. Gelinas. 

Shop around for the electric toothbrush features that are important for you

There are countless electric toothbrush manufacturers and models on the market, and they all offer slightly different features and benefits. According to Dr. Lee, Oral B and Sonicare are the most common brands in this category. "Both are good; I would suggest looking for one that includes a pressure sensor so that it will let you know if you are pushing too hard," says Dr. Lee, adding that some brands also offer different brush heads for various requirements — for example, a specially-designed head for individuals with braces or one with softer bristles for sensitive gums.

Dr. Gelinas prefers the Quip electric toothbrush (for its subscription concept, sleek look and "more gentle movement") and recommends keeping things simple when it comes to other electric options. "If you've got the toothbrush that's got a million different gadgets and attachments and this and that…it's just not necessary. At some point you have to draw the line," says Dr. Gelinas. She does like that many electric toothbrushes have built-in timers, which can help ensure that you're brushing long enough. 

With regards to the new crop of electric toothbrushes with silicone bristles, such as the ones from Foreo, Dr. Gelinas notes that current research shows that plaque removal is the same between nylon bristles (the standard material) and silicone, making the latter a good option to consider. "The fact that they're really soft [and less abrasive] is a huge bonus," says Dr. Gelinas. 

Consider a water flosser, maybe a tongue scraper too

Also a good adjunct to include would be water flossers like the one from Waterpik. Flossing should always be done in addition to brushing. But a water flosser is especially helpful for those who have difficulty flossing harder to reach areas, so that you're still cleaning between the teeth where the toothbrush doesn't reach. 

"You already should be making sure, at minimum, that you're brushing and flossing and using a tongue scraper — it's so easy and takes seconds," says Dr. Gelinas. "Everyone forgets about this massive piece of surface area that's in your mouth that just harbours a ton of bacteria." A tongue scraper can also help improve bad breath, according to Dr. Gelinas.

The experts' must-haves:

"I absolutely love Quip toothbrushes. They are committed to only using soft bristles because they know how damaging medium and firm can be. The subscription aspect is great because it takes the ease out of remembering when to change the brush head, the design makes it easy for travel, and I like the simplified design because we don't need all the bells and whistles." – Dr. Gelinas

Quip Electric Toothbrush, from about $34, Quip

"If you're not cleaning your tongue you are leaving a lot of bacteria in your mouth that isn't being cleaned. Think of how much real estate the tongue holds in a mouth! [This is] made with high-grade stainless steel, is cruelty-free and [the company] has strong ethical values." – Dr. Gelinas

Dr. Tung's Tongue Scraper, $13, Gelinas Dental Studio

"The angle of this really helps to clean under the gum line, especially in those hard-to-reach places. It has one end marked 'outside' to be used on the outside surface of teeth (eg cheek side), and the other end is for 'inside'." – Dr. Lee 

Sulcabrush Pocket Pack, $7.49, London Drugs

"The Waterpik Water Flosser is great because it helps to irrigate the areas in addition to breaking up the debris in the [gum] pocket. Just don't start on too high of a setting or you may find it uncomfortable; start on low-medium first and you can gradually increase it if needed. It's also especially useful for people with dental implants, bridges, braces where it takes more effort to clean effectively with regular floss." – Dr. Lee 

Waterpik Water Flosser Combo Pack, $84.99, Costco

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.