We head to the gym and the yoga studio, eat our fruits and veggies, even embark on monthlong cleanses—all in an effort to stay healthy. But one of the best things for our well-being takes just minutes a day: properly caring for our teeth.
“The mouth is a window to the rest of the body,” says New York City dentist Gregg Lituchy. Over the past decade, medical professionals have discovered that good oral hygiene doesn’t just keep your whites pearly. There’s growing research showing possible links between chronic inflammation of the gums—known as periodontal disease—and heart disease, diabetes, and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.
And yet a lot of us are still cutting our sink time short: A 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 47.2 percent of adults over 30 in the United States have gum disease. “A lot of people just brush until their mouth is minty and only floss the day before their dentist appointment,” says Jonathan Levine, a New York City– based dentist and oral-health expert. But even though the drugstore’s dental aisle teems with new products (and big promises), you don’t actually need many bells and whistles to keep your mouth healthy.
Reboot Your Routine
While many of us dutifully brush our teeth, we tend to think of flossing as extra credit. It’s hard to justify skipping it, though, when you consider all the bacteria hiding in your gums. If neglected, these germs can turn into tartar, inflame the gums, and travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, leading to more serious health issues. And the risk of gum disease increases with age. “Brushing only gets you so far—for adults, flossing is actually more important from a medical standpoint,” says Levine.
And it’s not enough to merely pop the floss in and out: “The goal is not just to get floss between teeth but to remove the plaque below the gumline,” says holistic dentist Marvin Pantangco, based in Encinitas, California. To do that, wrap the floss around each tooth just below the gumline in a C shape, and move it back and forth in a shoe-shining motion. If manipulating regular floss is a struggle, try a plastic flossing tool or an irrigator, like the Waterpik. “I’m in favor of all of the tools out there—whatever makes it easier to make flossing a habit,” says Levine.
In terms of brushing, dentists stand by the two-minute rule.There’s less consensus about whether electric toothbrushes are inherently more effective than regular toothbrushes, or simply encourage better habits because they frequently have built-in timing devices. Many dentists say you can get the same results if you practice good technique with a manual toothbrush, as long as you resist the urge to scrub. “The biggest mistake people make is to brush too vigorously, which scrapes away the enamel,” says Levine. Opt for a soft-bristled brush, and “hold it like a paintbrush, not a baseball bat.”
As for toothpastes, look for brands that don’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate (a foaming agent that causes allergic reactions in many people); artificial sweeteners like saccharine and aspartame; or triclosan, a detergent that kills bacteria but is considered overly aggressive by some dentists. Fluoride, too, has become a controversial ingredient in recent years. Most traditional dentists say it’s the best weapon against cavities, but some experts believe there’s a link between fluoridation (largely in drinking water) and neurological and reproductive issues. Talk to your dentist to help determine whether you want a fluoridated toothpaste or not. If you prefer to go the all-natural route, brush regularly or a few times a week with a mix of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, which “forces high-oxygen material, which bacteria hate, under areas where they hide,” says Pantangco.
Beyond the Basics
While most people are fine brushing twice a day and flossing once daily, many dentists encourage the use of other tools, like nonalcoholic mouthwashes and tongue rakes, for patients fighting stubborn bad breath. Available at health-food stores and most drugstores, the rakes help remove bacteria hiding out in the fissures of the tongue.
And if you have flossed, brushed, raked, gargled, and kept your biannual dentist appointments yet still have bad breath or inflamed gums, your diet may be the reason. Sugary, acidic, tooth-eroding soda gets all the attention, but other culprits may surprise you—including dried fruit, because it’s both sugary and sticks to the teeth; and alcohol, which dries out the mouth, encouraging bacterial growth. (You don’t have to cut these out of your diet, but brush soon after consuming them, says Lituchy, who admits to a weakness for Sour Patch candy.) Bacteria also thrive in an acidic environment, which is created by a diet low in fruit and vegetables and high in carbohydrates and protein. Score another point for leafy greens: “What’s good for the body,” says Levine, “is usually good for the mouth, too.”