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Tooth Brushing Mistakes You Make and How to Fix Them

DISCLOSURE: Noelle Copeland RDH is the oral care specialist and dental consultant to the Brilliant and Baby Buddy oral care lines through Compac Industries. See terms below.

If you are over the age of eighteen, it’s probably been a long time since someone has watched you brush your teeth! So when I ask my adult patients to brush their teeth for me so that I can watch their routine, I usually get a puzzled look, but mostly compliance and effort.

It’s a strange reality check when someone tells you that an activity you’ve been doing your entire life is falling short of effectiveness, but it happens to all of us, from time to time. Choosing the wrong toothbrush to meet our oral care needs to rushing through or scrubbing too hard, using way too much toothpaste, or keeping a toothbrush in circulation way past its expiration date.

So let’s talk toothbrushing 101 and highlight 5 Tooth Brushing mistakes.

Mistake #1 Your toothbrush design doesn’t support your oral care needs

Believe it or not, there’s a toothbrush out there that was meant just for you, whatever your specific needs are, a toothbrush exists to help meet those needs. So what exactly does that mean? Well, what are your oral care needs?

What are your Oral Care needs

Do you have sensitive teeth? Then you need an extra soft, sensitive bristle toothbrush.

Do your gums bleed easily? Then you may have undiagnosed gingivitis or periodontal disease, use a soft-bristled toothbrush and see your dentist for an evaluation.

Do you suffer from bad breath? Then you may need a toothbrush for scraping and brushing your tongue.

Do you have receding gums? Then you may need an extra soft toothbrush with tapered bristles.

Do you have dentures or partials? Then you need a special denture brush to clean your appliance (outside of the mouth).

Do you have a tiny mouth or a larger mouth? Then reach for a child-sized toothbrush for a small mouth or special order a large head toothbrush for a larger mouth.

Do you have braces or orthodontic appliances? Then you may need a moderately powered electric toothbrush to reach all the nooks and crannies.

Do you have dry mouth, recurrent mouth ulcers, tissue sloughing, or any special oral condition? Then you may need a special soft toothbrush that will be extra gentle on a tender mouth.

Do you have any issues with grip or dexterity in your hands? Then you may need a larger grip base for your toothbrush.

Most of these questions you probably wouldn’t think to ask yourself before making a toothbrush purchase. You head to the toothbrush aisle at the store and probably choose a brush somewhere between whatever is the cheapest and whatever is the most expensive, middle of the road, and that’s what most people do.

So consider the list above and follow the other guidelines I will list below.

Toothbrush purchasing guidelines

  • Choose soft, sensitive, special soft or extra soft for teeth, never medium or hard bristles.
  • Choose medium or hard bristles for specialty toothbrushes the clean appliances like dentures, partials, or other removables.
  • Look for the age suggestion on kids toothbrushes and follow the suggestion.
  • Make sure the handle is comfortable to hold.
  • Choose electric models for greater plaque removal
Mistake #2 You don’t brush the 2 x 2 rule: 2 times a day for 2 minutes

Sometimes we get so rushed in life that the most important things get cut short with the potential for long-lasting future effects. Toothbrushing falls right into that category. Two minutes doesn’t seem like a long time to have to do something, like brushing your teeth, but for some reason at the end of the day when you have no more energy left and you are absolutely exhausted, 2 minutes of toothbrushing can feel like an eternity, especially for kids.

Nighttime brushing battle

Nighttime brushing is where most people will tend to rush through and skip over important steps in oral care. This time frame also has the most detrimental effect in the long run. If you go to sleep at night with plaque and food debris remaining in between your teeth, underneath the gums, or just sitting on the surface of a tooth, while you’re sleeping the leftover plaque and bacteria from your day can do the most damage.

The #1 thing you can do

Brushing for a full 2 minutes, as recommended by the ADA, and more if needed, to reach every tooth and every surface is the number one thing you can do for your oral health, followed by flossing and then diet. This means you’re brushing purposely, not hurriedly, or multitasking while doing it. Observational studies have shown that most people brush for around 30- 45 seconds, and this isn’t long enough to brush the whole mouth, effectively!

Execution Strategy

My suggestion to my patients over the years has been to NOT wait until bedtime to brush, especially if you know this is where you will compromise. I have recommended, with success, to perform the evening brushing 30 minutes after the last meal. The 30-minute wait is to prevent any toothbrush abrasion that would occur if you were to immediately brush after having any sort of acidic food or drink with a meal, and most of us eat something acidic with a meal, whether it be in a dressing, sauce, fruit, tea, soda or cracker, wait 30 minutes, about the time it takes to clean up the kitchen and prepare a packed lunch for the following day.

Assuming you have the “twice a day” brushing routine down, now we need to get through 2 of the longest minutes in the history of time, and here are some fun ways to do that.

Effective ways to help 2 minutes fly by

  • Get appy with it!!! There are innumerable apps you can use to help you stay accountable for numerous healthcare activities and toothbrushing just happens to be one of them! Especially if you have a fancy swanky electric toothbrush. Some are now coming with their own apps, timers, and tracker tables.
  • Use an old fashioned egg timer or kitchen timer.
  • Listen to your favorite song or find one that hovers around the 3-5 minute mark.
  • Look in the mirror while you brush your teeth, and count out 30-second intervals in your head while brushing all 4 quads of your mouth.         Upper right, Upper Left, Lower Right, Lower Left, brush tongue…Done, 2  minutes, Voila!!
Mistake #3 You don’t brush correctly

Okay….so we’ve handled mistake number one and you’re using the right toothbrush for your needs.

We’ve also covered mistake number two and now you’re brushing twice a day for two minutes each time. Awesome!

We’re on a roll. The next mistake we need to talk about is brushing correctly! It doesn’t do very much good to be using the right brush and brushing the correct amount of time if you’re not doing it the right way.

Case in point

This reminds me of a scenario I encountered regularly with a beloved elder in my life. God bless her soul, every time I called her she would hold her cell phone upside down, so she was talking into the earpiece and the earpiece was at her mouth.

Obviously this made a conversation extremely difficult for her and for me, not impossible but difficult and much less effective. Even with repeated attempts to explain to her “over the phone” that she had the phone upside down, the execution would only produce good results when she held the phone the correct way.

Toothbrushes are kind of the same, for the most part, they’re just your tools, you are the tool controller, and the tool will only work as well as the one who is controlling it.

For a manual toothbrush the only way it removes plaque and bacteria from the teeth is by actually having physical contact with the tooth, so be purposeful about making sure the bristles of the brush touch every surface of every tooth. Do this without scrubbing the teeth but by gently massaging the tooth with the bristles and gently brushing just underneath the gum line.

For an electric toothbrush, you have more power and ability to remove plaque with the pulses and vibrations, but you still have to drive the brush around the entire mouth to clean all the teeth, reaching every tooth surface.

Don’t Forget

  • Don’t suck on a toothbrush.
  • Don’t chew on a toothbrush.
  • Don’t share your toothbrush.
  • Replace your toothbrush every 3 months or sooner if needed including any time you’ve recovered from an illness like the flu
  • Brush for 2 minutes
  • Brush at least twice a day.
  • Don’t brush immediately after a meal or acidic drink.
  • Stay in the bathroom while brushing your teeth.
  • Look in the mirror while brushing your teeth and pay attention to how you’re brushing

 How to brush your teeth

  • Wash your hands with hot soapy water before
  • Apply a small amount of gel or paste to the bristles
  • Hold the brush and place it in the mouth, preferably starting in the back of the mouth.
  • Angle the bristles to 45 degrees by tilting the brush slightly up, toward the gum line, this applies to all standard flat, one-sided toothbrushes
  • Brush every tooth, with small back and forth motions if using a manual toothbrush. If you have a sonic or electric toothbrush please follow the directions for brush strokes that came with your brush.
  • Reach each tooth individually and one at a time. Do not use long sweeping motions, but rather short brushing strokes, focusing on one tooth at a time.
  • Moving from one side of the mouth to the other, from the back of the mouth to the front of the mouth, and then back again on the opposite side, repeating this sequence on the tongue side of the teeth.
  • Brush every surface of every tooth, including the top chewing surfaces, and don’t forget the tongue.
  • Follow up with a water rinse to remove any toothpaste residue


Mistake #4 You use too much toothpaste

This one always shocks people when I bring it up! After a lifetime of commercials marketing toothbrushes with long swirly slabs of toothpaste dripping off either end, most people assume that they need an inch long-serving of toothpaste to get the job done.

Toothpaste 101

Don’t get me wrong toothpaste is great, but too much toothpaste, not so great. Most people choose a mint family flavor of toothpaste. Well, mint has a slightly numbing and tingling effect in the mouth which can inhibit your ability to feel the effectiveness of your brushing efforts. Plus most toothpaste has added sudsing agents in them which give it the bubbly, foamy, frothy texture and feel we’ve come to love so much….. but it’s also a pretty big distraction.

Most adults only need a pea-sized amount of toothpaste or slightly more, to brush their entire mouth. The teeth are being cleaned by the bristles moving across the surface of the teeth. The toothpaste is just a nice addition to the routine. Yes, toothpaste has ingredients like fluoride, whiteners, abrasives for stain removal but all of that is useless if the toothbrush isn’t used correctly and plaque and bacteria are left behind.

Mistake #5 You don’t visit the dentist regularly

Visiting your dentist at least twice a year helps you in your home care efforts. No matter how great you are at brushing your teeth, you’re still going to miss areas, you’re still going to have seasons where your routine is just a little bit off, you’re still going to have professional needs that need to be met, like getting a cleaning with your hygienist. This also allows for any shortcomings to be addressed quickly before they become bigger problems.

Additionally, your dental professional will be up to date on the latest and greatest in oral care and this knowledge can change the products you use and how you use them.

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This article is intended to provide an understanding of and knowledge about “oral health topics” as expressed through the perspective and experience of the author. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice or counsel, including the diagnosis or treatment of any condition. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, an oral condition, illness, or treatment of any listed or non-listed situation above. By using this site, you signify your assent to our Terms and Conditions. If you do not agree to all of these Terms and Conditions, do not use this site.

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