Ann Spolarich has been a dental hygienist for 40 years.
Dental care at home involves more than brushing your teeth, she says. She also advises people to take care of their gums, tongue, dentures or implants, mouth, and lips.
She advises people to ask their dental hygienist or dentist for tips and product recommendations.
When most people hear the phrase “regular dental visits,” they think about scheduling a checkup with their dentist every 6 months or once a year.
But Ann Spolarich, a dental hygienist of 40 years, recommends a daily routine that focuses on more than your teeth. Good dental care, she says, includes your teeth, gums, tongue, dentures or implants, and lips.
Paying attention to the entire mouth is the best way of avoiding surprises at checkups, she says.
She's a lifelong member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. She's also a professor and assistant dean for research at the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health at A.T. Still University in Mesa, Arizona. She specializes in treating patients with special needs and medically complex dental issues.
Here’s what’s in Ann’s medicine cabinet and what she recommends to others — whether your teeth are in great shape or need extra levels of care.
“It’s a misconception that if the toothbrush is harder, it’ll clean better,” she explains. “Teeth are round, and you need a soft bristle to flex around the curves of the teeth and to access between the teeth and along the gum line.”
A hard bristle can be abrasive on the gums and teeth and cause damage, she says.
Does the brand of toothbrush matter? Most major toothbrush manufacturers make soft-bristled brushes, she explains. “Your dental hygienist can also work with you to find the toothbrush that is right for you.
And don’t forget: “It’s a good practice to brush your tongue every day,” she says. “Brushing the tongue reduces bacteria in the mouth and helps fight bad breath. The tongue is a major source of bacteria that leads to the formation of plaque, a film on your teeth that can cause gingivitis.” Mouthwashes can keep disease-causing bacteria at bay.
Also, store your toothbrush so that it dries completely between uses. “It’s better to have it standing up in a cup or on a stand — anything that’s freestanding, so it’ll air dry,” she says.
A toothbrush is a piece of equipment, and no one likes using equipment that’s worn out.
“The bristles on a toothbrush lose their shape over time,” Ann says. “If the bristles on your brush are pointing in all different directions, using it can cause trauma to the teeth and gums.”
“I call them power toothbrushes, and I recommend them for all of my patients,” Ann says. “There’s research showing that they actually do a better job of removing plaque from the teeth than a manual toothbrush. They also support healthy gums.”
Most major brands and models do a good job of keeping the teeth and gums healthy, she says. If you’re unsure, talk to your dental hygienist for a recommendation and instructions on its use.
“There’s a learning curve with power toothbrushes,” she says. “It’s important to learn to adapt them to your tooth structure and to know which speed and setting to use.”
“Not all toothpastes are created equal,” Ann says. “Some people think you can use any toothpaste, but today’s toothpastes are customized to best suit your needs. I always recommend a fluoride toothpaste, because no matter how old you are, you’re still susceptible to cavities.”
For example, some toothpaste formulas focus on cavity prevention and fighting tooth decay. Others reduce tooth sensitivity to hot and cold. Some can whiten dull or stained teeth. Other toothpastes prevent plaque and gingivitis.
Ann’s advice? Talk to your dentist and dental hygienist for toothpaste recommendations. Read labels.
“It’s important to pick the toothpaste that best addresses your needs,” she says. “I tend to recommend fluoride toothpastes because they also reduce plaque and prevent gingivitis and cavities.”
As for whitening toothpastes? “Choose a product from a reputable company. And look for the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval on the box. With so many whitening products available today, that seal of approval essentially tells consumers that it’s a safe product to use.”
Bacteria live between your teeth, too, so removing plaque and food particles regularly is important to prevent cavities and gum disease, Ann points out.
She also knows that “flossing is really hard for most people, and there are many products that make cleaning between the teeth easier.” Those include:
Regular dental floss for manual flossing between teeth
Floss picks and brushes to insert between teeth to remove food particles and bacteria. “The nice thing about brushes and picks is that they’re portable,” Ann points out. “You can carry one in your pocket or your purse.”
An electric flosser — sometimes called an oral irrigator or Waterpik. This handheld tool squirts a steady stream of water between the teeth and along the gumline. “An irrigator is like a squirt gun, essentially,” Ann says. “It really helps to remove food particles and bacteria in between teeth and underneath bridges, and it’s good for people with braces and dental implants.”
Many people think mouthwashes are primarily for bad breath, Ann says. But mouthwashes with fluoride can reduce cavities. Some mouthwashes can reduce plaque and gingivitis. Others can relieve dry mouth, Ann says.
“The good thing is that mouthwashes are really beneficial, and they’re easy to use. Some areas of your mouth are harder to reach than others — especially way in the back of your mouth, or if you have a lot of rims and edges from extensive dental work. These mouthwashes can reach hard-to-clean areas.”
“Believe it or not, dry mouth is a huge problem in this country,” she explains. “It’s usually caused by taking common types of medications.” Those can include allergy medicines, antihistamines, antidepressants, and other common medications.
Most dry-mouth products are available over the counter or online. They come in various forms: rinses, gums, sprays, and lozenges. Some dry-mouth formulations include xylitol, a natural sugar alcohol that also fights cavities.
“Dry-mouth products act like lubricants by adding moisture. They make it easier for people to eat and swallow food,” Ann says. “Some also have fluoride in them, because if your mouth is dry, you lose the protective properties of your saliva. Losing that protection increases the chance of infections and cavities.”
“There are lots of products out there for dry mouth, and sometimes you have to try different ones to find out which works best,” she says.
“Even though they’re not your own teeth, cleaning implants daily is essential for the gum tissue and bone to remain healthy,” Ann points out. You don't want plaque to accumulate around the gumline at the implant, which could cause an infection.
An electric flosser can help clean dental implants, as can many other oral hygiene aids. Ask your dental professional to show you how to clean your implant.
The same goes for dentures. Ann recommends daily cleaning using major-brand denture cleaners.
“They kill the bacteria that grow on the denture. If you don’t take them out and clean them every night, you can actually develop infections in your mouth from your dentures. That’s why daily cleaning is very important.”
She offers this time-tested routine for denture cleaning to avoid dropping or breaking them:
Fill the bathroom sink with water
Place a washcloth on the bottom of the sink over the drain
Use a soft denture brush for cleaning
Any dropped denture will land in the water on a soft washcloth — not on a porcelain sink or hard floor
Lip balm can keep lips supple and healthy. It also can prevent skin cancer on an area of the body that is often overlooked, Ann says. She recommends using a lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
“If you’re out and about and don’t have a chance to brush or clean your teeth after eating or drinking, chew sugarless gum or suck on a sugarless mint for about 20 minutes,” Ann recommends.
Stocking your medicine cabinet with your whole mouth in mind is what Ann recommends for “regular dental care.” Keep everything in your mouth healthy and clean to avoid troublesome issues with your teeth, gums, tongue, lips, and mouth.