Improve Your Oral Hygiene: How To Get Healthier Gums and Teeth

Oral care

Do you have good oral hygiene? Do you keep your teeth and gums in tip-top condition?

I used to be very lazy where oral care is concerned. For example, I would brush my teeth in the morning, but I rarely brushed at night, simply because I never knew if I would be eating after brushing. Flossing was also never a habit. I didn’t like using the mouthwash either because it would burn my mouth. I didn’t think there would be any implications from a few nights of neglecting my oral care.

Well a few nights turned into weeks, which then turned into months, and then turned into years. It became a longstanding bad habit. Last year, a visit to the dentist revealed that I had a few dental caries (i.e. decays) in my molars. It made me realize the importance of cleaning my teeth every day, and thereafter helped me cultivate the habit of good oral care.

I’ve put together this guide with the quintessential steps to achieve healthy gums (and also healthy teeth). Obviously, I’m no dentist or periodontic expert, just someone who has successfully improved her oral hygiene, and wants to share what I have picked up. If anything, this guide is meant as a reminder of what we should be doing for better oral hygiene, but may not be doing yet.

If you have poor teeth or gum condition, don’t expect your dentist to solve your problem for you, because he/she wouldn’t be able to provide a magic pill that can fix your oral problems. Chances are he/she are going to tell you the same stuff which I’m going to share next. It all boils down to you reading this guide and following the steps.

Good luck, and let me know how the tips work for you!

#1. Use a good toothbrush

Go for a toothbrush with soft and round bristles, so that it does not hurt your gums while you are brushing it. It really makes a difference. I’ve tried brushing with a soft toothbrush and a hard toothbrush before – The former feels gentle to touch, while the latter feels like you’re poking your gums with a sharp object. The soft one is definitely the way to go.

Secondly, use the ones with crisscross bristles. They help to reach tiny creases and remove elusive plaque that’s stuck in between your teeth. They also help to brush away plaque that’s stubbornly stuck on your teeth, since there is a larger surface area of contact.

Crisscross Toothbrush
(Image: Hybrid Medical Animation)

A good toothbrush may cost more than regular ones, but considering you use it at least twice a day, invest in a good quality one . It’s just a few dollars more expensive anyway – no point scrimping on daily essentials that can make a big difference.

Perhaps you are wondering: How about electric toothbrushes? To be honest, I’m neutral about them. I suppose they are good if you are lazy, but I find the batteries run out really fast (like, less than a month). Not exactly environmentally friendly if you ask me. With proper brushing technique (see below), a good, regular toothbrush can clean your teeth as well as an electric one.

#2. Floss – Every day

Flossing is one of the tasks we will be working on in the third week of Live a Healthier Life in 21 Days (21DHL). 😀 Yes I know – flossing is boring and a pain in the *ss, but it’s important! I used to hate flossing and never did it in the past, but I’ve finally accepted it as part of my daily routine now, along with brushing my teeth.

I think what made the mental shift was when I consistently saw the amount of plaque and food debris I would dislodge as a result of flossing – despite having brushed my teeth earlier. It made me realize flossing does make a big difference – it serves a unique function that brushing is unable to fulfill. If I don’t floss, I would be going to sleep with little food pieces stuck between my teeth, which then serve as nests for bacteria to gather. Definitely not something I want happen.

I like this joke which PE reader, Charles (ozcaveman on Personal Excellence Forums), shared with us during last year’s run of 21DHL. He asked his dentist which teeth he should floss, of which his dentist replied with a tongue-in-cheek comment: “Only floss the teeth you want to keep!” Makes you realize how important flossing is, especially if dentists harp on it all the time!

Here’s a short 1:54 minute video on how to floss your teeth properly:

#3. Brush at least twice a day

Do you brush your teeth at least twice a day? Once after you wake up, and once before you sleep?

Most of us know we should, but we don’t. We opt for the lazy path, going to bed without brushing our teeth. While it’s convenient, doing this for a prolonged period is only going to bite us in the future.

(For more on breaking bad habits, read: How To Break Recurring Patterns in Life, exclusive article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)

Some hard core hygienists clean their teeth right after every meal. Personally, I think that’s very admirable. Though it’s not something I do currently because I usually go for multiple small meals vs. several large meals (which makes cleaning my teeth every time I eat too much of a hassle), it is a standard I aspire to achieve in the future. Perhaps I may consider adjusting the frequency of my meals in the future to make this more feasible.

#4. Use a mouthwash

Mouthwash has its unique role in oral hygiene, because our teeth makes up only 25% of our mouth. There is also our tongue, area near our throat, our palate (roof of our mouth), and our gums, which are neglected during brushing. You want to eliminate bacteria in your mouth, so that plaque cannot form, since plaque is the building block of many oral diseases.

I know there are a lot of commercial mouthwash brands out there, and I’m personally not informed enough about these products to make a recommendation for nor against them. There are a lot of controversies about some of the ingredients that can be found in these mouthwashes, such as fluoride (a common ingredient in toothpastes, which helps prevent tooth decay) and alcohol (which has been said to potentially increase the risk of oral cancer).

While it remains open on whether mouthwashes with such ingredients are beneficial or detrimental for us, my point of recommending a mouthwash is to let you know that (a) simply brushing and flossing alone is insufficient in oral care, since that only cleans about 25% of our mouth (b) and as such, you need to consider a solution to cleanse your mouth and teeth – be it a commercial mouthwash with said ingredients or an alternative mouthwash, such as a salt mouthwash or herbal mouthwash. Mouthwash doesn’t automatically mean a solution that contains fluoride and/or alcohol, so take note of the distinction.

As to which mouthwash you should use, I recommend you to do your due research before making your choice. Here’s a simple fact sheet provided by Oral Care and Health Daily, which shares common mouthwash ingredients and popular benefits linked to them.

Help prevent cavities? Fluoride. Its ability to prevent tooth decay is well-established.
Fight gum disease? Cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC) or chlorhexidine gluconate. Recent research has shown these ingredients help prevent gingivitis and dental plaque.
Moisten your mouth? Carboxymethylcellulose or hydroxyethylcellulose, both of which simulate natural saliva. Bonus points if the rinse also contains fluoride, since dry mouth contributes to cavities.
Soothe canker sores or mouth abrasions? Hydrogen peroxide. It’s a safe bet because it’s antimicrobial without being overly abrasive.
Freshen your breath? Methyl salicylate and chlorhexidine gluconate. These antiseptics help fight the bacteria that contribute to bad breath. Additional herbs, scents and flavorings help mask odor.

#5. Get braces if you need them

Braces are orthodontic tools to straighten your teeth, such that you have a correct bite and have an easier task cleaning your teeth from there on. It’s commonly used to address “crowding” or crookedness of teeth, an issue that arises when one’s mouth is small and cannot accommodate the full set of teeth. It is also used to address overbites, underbites and crossbites.

I wore braces when I was 19-21. My main issue was crowding of my teeth, both in my lower and upper sets of teeth. As part of my orthodontic treatment, I had to remove 4 teeth, not including my 2 lower wisdom teeth which I had removed when I was 18.

While it was troublesome due to the regular dental checkups, frequency in which food would get dislodged (in my braces) and difficulty in cleaning my teeth, these only lasted during the time I had my braces, which was about 1 year and 9 months. The long-term rewards definitely more than made up for the short-term hassles, which are just a figment of my memory now.

What are the benefits? Firstly, with straightened teeth, it was easier for me to clean them. That’s less time spent brushing and flossing every day. Secondly, straighter teeth meant a nicer look, which made me more confident about my smile. 😀 Thirdly, the effects are long-term. As long as you wear your retainers regularly (every night if you can), your teeth will remain straight. I only wear my retainers once every 1-2 months now (though I should wear it more regularly), and my teeth are still very straight.

If you are contemplating whether to get braces or not, think about it this way – The sooner you wear them, the faster you can take them off! This was what sealed the deal for me. Also, there are many braces options now, from the traditional metal braces, to ceramic, clear braces (which are tooth-colored and hence less visible), to colored braces (which makes wearing braces a fun and fashionable experience), to lingual braces (where the braces are bonded to the back of your teeth, hence making them invisible), to even removable ones! (Invisalign).

#6. Avoid soft drinks

Soft drinks have a load of sugar, which makes it easy for plaque to form, which in turn contributes to gingivitis (gum disease). They are also highly acidic, eroding your tooth enamel bit by bit every time you drink them. Not only that, they are unhealthy with tons of chemicals, and contribute to weight gain. Seriously, need I say more?

I stopped drinking soft drinks years ago and I’m glad I stopped when I did. They are basically sugared water that has zero value. I’ve never looked back since.

Read: 5 Reasons To Quit Drinking Soda Drinks (And How To Do It)

#7. Don’t smoke

Smoking has consistently been linked with gum disease and oral diseases. I’ve met a few smokers before, and they always have yellow teeth and eroded gums. Not a pleasant sight. Not to mention they usually have bad breath too.

From American Academy of Periodontology:

How does smoking increase your risk for periodontal disease? As a smoker, you are more likely than nonsmokers to have the following problems:

  • Calculus – plaque that hardens on your teeth and can only be removed during a professional cleaning
  • Deep pockets between your teeth and gums
  • Loss of the bone and tissue that support your teeth

If the calculus is not removed during a professional cleaning, and it remains below your gum line, the bacteria in the calculus can destroy your gum tissue and cause your gums to pull away from your teeth. When this happens, periodontal pockets form and fill with disease-causing bacteria.

If left untreated, periodontal disease will progress. The pockets between your teeth and gums can grow deeper, allowing in more bacteria that destroy tissue and supporting bone. As a result, the gums may shrink away from the teeth making them look longer. Without treatment, your teeth may become loose, painful and even fall out.

Bottom line? Don’t smoke, unless you relish the idea of having yellow teeth and receding gums.

#8. Brush using the right technique

It’s one thing to brush your teeth diligently every day. It’s another thing to brush it with the right technique, such that your plaque gets eradicated.

Here’s a simple video on how to brush your teeth:

#9. Destroy all bacteria “nests”

This is probably the most important oral care tip I’ve ever picked up.

For many years, I had unhealthy gums. By unhealthy, I mean gums that are slightly reddish, swollen, and that bleed when I brush too hard. My gumline was always brighter and redder in color than the rest of my gums, which would be a healthy pink.

Not only that, it was receding *very*, *very* slowly over the years. Not good, especially if I want my teeth to be intact when I’m 60, 80, or even 100!

When I went to the dentist, I discovered I had a mild case of gingivitis, which is the inflammation of gums. It is estimated that more than 75% of the population experiences gingivitis on some level (Source). From US National Library of Medicine:

Gingivitis is a form of periodontal disease. Periodontal disease involves inflammation and infection that destroys the tissues that support the teeth, including the gums, the periodontal ligaments, and the tooth sockets (alveolar bone).

The thing though, was that my gums remained inflamed even though I began to brush my teeth diligently and use the mouthwash regularly. I was somewhat expecting to be stuck with unhealthy gums, only because I had them for so long and didn’t think they were reversible.

My friend, a dentistry student, then told me it was due to an incorrect brushing technique, and taught me this tip. I tried it with a dose of skepticism, and was pleasantly surprised when my longstanding gum inflammation issue resolved itself after one to two weeks! For the first time, I have fully pink gums, vs. semi-pink and red gums with a reddish gumline.

Here’s how it works. Look at the area between your tooth and your gum, i.e. your gumline. This is a hot spot where bacteria gathers (my dentist friend analogizes this to ant nests). You want to destroy these nests every time you brush, because if you don’t do it, it will give rise to plaque, which then becomes dental calculus, which is rock-hard and extremely difficult to remove.

So when brushing, pay special attention to this area. What I found helpful is to (a) angle your toothbrush at 45 degrees against the area (b) make very quick, rapid motions, which helps to “break” the nests (c) repeat two to three times per tooth until it feels clean and non-sticky to touch.

#10. Use plaque locator products

Sometimes you may have brushed, flossed, and used the mouthwash, and still have plaque embedded somewhere – because you missed out on a blind spot.

But there’s no way you’d know, especially since plaque is transparent. And waiting till you get cavities from plaque that is built-up over weeks, even months, is not exactly a solution. This is where plaque locator tablets come in.

If you don’t know what they are, they are pink tablets which help uncover the plaque in your mouth by coloring them pink after you chew them. See picture below:

Plaque locator tablets at work*Areas colored pink means there is plaque. The deeper the pink, the more plaque there is. (Image: Total Teeth Care)

This way, you know the areas you missed, so you can return to clean them up. Once you remove the plaque, the stain will be gone. And the next time you brush, pay special attention to these areas, so you get everything covered.

IMO, plaque locator tablets is one of the best inventions in the realm of oral care. I used to think I do a good job cleaning my teeth, until I tried the tablets and saw a good area of my teeth colored pink! They were typically along the gumline (where it’s easiest for plaque to build up) and the creases between my teeth. Knowing what a poor job I was doing cleaning my teeth made me more diligent in my oral hygiene.

There have since been numerous plaque locator products in the market, from plaque locator swabs, to plaque locator solutions, to even plaque locator floss! You should be able to buy them in pharmacies, drugstores or dental clinics.

#11. Go for a dental checkup once every 6 months

It’s always good to go for a dental checkup once every 6 months, because then you can fix any issues with your teeth or gums before it’s too late. It’s also a good chance to get your teeth scaled and polished, which makes it harder for plaque to form, hence making it easier for you to maintain your oral hygiene.

My last visit to the dentist was May 2011 (before I started traveling), and I’ll be planning for a checkup when I get back home later this year. I have an impacted molar which needs root canal treatment, and one upper wisdom tooth which I would like to remove, so I’m going to get them done soon.

Update Mar 28 ’13: I’ve since removed both my upper wisdom teeth and done my root canal treatment. Read more: What I Learned From My First Root Canal Treatment (and Having the Insides of My Tooth “Swooshed” Out)

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] The Guide To Healthier Gums and Teeth

This is part of the Cultivate Good Habits Series. Be sure to check out the full series:

  1. 21 Days To Cultivate Life Transforming Habits
  2. 21-Day Lifestyle Revamp Program
  3. 14 Tips To Successfully Cultivate New Habits (exclusive article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)
  4. Waking Early9 Reasons to Wake Up Early | 21 Tips To Wake Up Early
  5. Quitting Soda5 Reasons To Quit Drinking Soda (& How To Do It)
  6. Improve Your PostureBenefits Of A Good Posture (& 13 Tips To Do It)
  7. Be TV-Free: 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV
  8. Being On Time17 Tips To Be On Time
  9. Meditation10 Reasons You Should Meditate | How To Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
  10. Manage Emails Effectively11 Simple Tips To Effective Email Management
  11. Run Barefoot: 10 Reasons You Should Start Running Barefoot
  12. Weight Loss: 25 Of My Best Weight Loss Tips
  13. Emotional EatingHow To Stop Emotional Eating (6-part series)
  14. Better Oral CareHow To Attain Healthier Gums and Teeth – An Important Guide

Images: Oral careCrisscross Toothbrush