Have you ever met someone who seemed really attractive … until the moment they opened their mouths? Sometimes this is a question of them saying the wrong thing, but (too often) it’s because they’ve neglected their teeth.
Proper dental care is taught at school, if at all, only in a rudimentary way. At home, parents may teach their children to make the same mistakes they do. Yet knowing how to take care of your teeth is an essential life skill: neglecting it impacts a person’s self-esteem and even their professional prospects. First impressions matter!
In this article, we’re going to walk you through absolutely everything you need to know. From understanding how adult teeth work to basic care to more advanced techniques, after reading through the following you should have no problem keeping your mouth in shape.
All About Adult Teeth
The first step in giving adult teeth the care they deserve is to know exactly what they are, how they differ, and what parts they’re made of. You probably know much of this already, but taking a quick look through this section will make what’s to follow a lot easier to understand.
Adults normally have 32 teeth, with these being of different types, as you can see here:
The function of each type is determined by its shape:
- Incisors: These, at the front of your mouth, cut food into chewable chunks.
- Canines: Next to the incisors we find these sharp, pointy teeth. Their purpose is to pierce and hold food so we can tear off pieces of it.
- Premolars: Also called first molars, these teeth, which exist only in adults, crush both soft and hard foods, making them easier to digest.
- Molars: The molars are the largest and flattest of the teeth. Like premolars, they mash food into a pulp, while their shape and size also let them apply a grinding action.
- Wisdom Teeth: Also called third molars, these teeth have the same function as molars. To avoid impacted wisdom teeth (growing in the wrong direction) they are often removed when there’s little room in the mouth.
How a Tooth Looks on the Inside
What we commonly think of as our teeth are really only the tip of a more complex iceberg. Much of the tooth lies below the surface and extends down to the jawbone.
Like with bones, it would be a mistake to think of a tooth as anything but alive. Though the visible part is pretty much inert, the interior is constantly regenerating. Tooth and gum disease can affect both the squishy and the hard tissues, so let’s take a quick look at what the different parts are called and what they do:
- Enamel is the surface of the portion of the tooth that protrudes from the gum, and is in fact the hardest part of the human body. This provides a good chewing surface.
- Dentin is similar to enamel in that it’s partly a mineral compound, but it also contains organic matter. Since enamel is very brittle, the more resilient dentin helps to support it and keep it from cracking.
- A thin layer of cementum covers the root portion of the tooth. Its function is mainly to help anchor the tooth to the gums.
- Dental pulp fills the interior of the tooth. Consisting of blood vessels, nerves and other cells, it replenishes dentin as needed.
Common Tooth Diseases that Can Be Avoided
Sometimes, like when a tooth is created without any enamel, the cause of dental conditions is simply genetic. For the most part, though, the problems most commonly seen are simply the result of not caring for your teeth properly.
Probably the condition dentists treat most frequently, a cavity happens when acids produced by bacteria burn through the enamel or even the dentin of a tooth.
Symptoms and treatment: A dentist can detect developing cavities during regular checkups, for instance by taking an X-ray. If these flaws are allowed to develop further, the tooth will start to hurt, especially when drinking something hot or cold. Depending on the severity of the cavity, the next step can then be:
- Drilling out the damaged portion and replacing it with a synthetic material,
- Removing the top part of the tooth and installing a crown,
- Or, if the dental pulp itself is irreperably damaged, a root canal may be performed. This means removing both the organic and hard parts of the tooth, sealing the root and installing a crown.
Periodontitis and Gingivitis
These are both terms for gum disease: gingivitis means that the surface portions of the gums are inflamed (swollen) and/or infected, while periodontitis occurs when this has penetrated more deeply. Both are usually the result of plaque buildup, which allows bacteria to accumulate.
If this plaque isn’t taken care of, periodontitis can develop, causing your gums to pull away from the teeth roots. This leaves them unsupported and can even make them fall out.
Symptoms and treatment: The signs of gum disease are irritable, swollen gums that may bleed after normal brushing, as well as teeth feeling loose. What’s necessary to reverse the condition depends on how advanced it is. Your dentist may clean your teeth professionally to remove built-up plaque deposits or ask you to use a special mouthwash. Sometimes, surgery is required to deal with the germ-infested “pockets” that have formed between your gums and teeth.
Some amount of plaque on the teeth is normal; we all have it. As long as it’s removed with regular brushing, this doesn’t constitute a problem. If, however, plaque is allowed to grow unchecked, it can cause the buildup of tartar, which is a different kind of animal.
Bacteria secrete waste products, which are called plaque when they stick to your teeth. Over time, this can absorb minerals from food and saliva and harden. At this point, no amount of brushing will dislodge it.
Symptoms and treatment:
While normal plaque is invisible, tartar occurs in clearly visible, yellow-brown patches. The only way to remove it is for an oral hygienist or dentists to physically scrape it off.
How to Keep Your Teeth and Gums Healthy
This will not only save you from a great deal of pain and huge medical bills, but make you more attractive too.
Isn’t it strange how almost everyone is taught to brush their teeth, but few are actually shown how? Even if you know in theory, the temptation to just drag the bristles around a little before spitting can overwhelm any of us.
The recommended technique for brushing is as follows:
- Hold the brush at a 45° angle, not parallel to your gum line.
- Draw the head back and forth, in short strokes. Make sure to cover every part of the teeth’s surface.
- Now, tilt the brush vertically and scrub each of the gaps between teeth using an up-and-down motion.
- All of the above should take you at least two minutes. Particularly with kids, you might want to use a timer to help them remember.
If all this sounds complicated … well, it is, and it takes some time to get used to it. There is some good news, though: an electric toothbrush with its multiple axes of motion allows you to get the full benefits while mostly just moving back and forth. Be sure to get one that suits you, though.
You would think that a stiff toothbrush cleans better, but as long as you brush twice a day, a soft-bristle brush is all you need to stay plaque-free, and it won’t damage your gums. You may also want to disinfect your toothbrush from time to time, and change it as soon as the bristles are no longer straight.
Which toothpaste you select is important, too. While most non-medicated toothpastes are basically the same, there are differences in quality. It’s safest to go with a brand that’s certified by the American Dental Association.
Flossing is like exercise: if you don’t do it regularly, it becomes uncomfortable. If your gums start to bleed when you floss and you are not suffering from gingivitis, you may need to up your floss game. Doing this chore every day at bedtime helps to make it a routine.
Even if you brush diligently, plaque and food particles can still get stuck in the crevices between your teeth. This is where flossing comes in, and here’s how to do it:
- Start by cutting off at least a foot of floss – it’s important to use clean floss for every tooth.
- Twist almost all of the floss around one finger, leaving about four inches. Wind this around a finger on your other hand until you have an inch left in the middle. Some people prefer to use their middle fingers, others the index; it’s up to you.
- Gently work it up and down between each pair of teeth, curving it to either side to clean them at the base.
- Feed the floss from one finger to the other as you go, otherwise you might end up just transferring gunk from one spot to another.
- Don’t force the floss against the gums, or saw it back and forth. This doesn’t help you to clean any better.
- Rinse your mouth out thoroughly afterwards to get rid of any dislodged food particles.
Basically, you can buy two kinds of floss: single-filament and stranded. The stranded kind, which consists of several threads twisted together, can sometimes partially break, but should be fine unless you have very closely-spaced teeth. It’s also a little cheaper.
The final step in attaining good oral hygiene, a medicated mouthwash freshens your breath and reduces the chances of gum disease by killing germs all over the inside of your mouth. Note that some mouthwashes you’ll find in the supermarket only do the former: while they kill the germs which cause bad breath, they’re not so good at eliminating plaque-building bacteria. If you prefer a more organic lifestyle, you can also use warm salt water for this purpose.
Simply take a small amount into your mouth and swish it around like you’re trying to make funny faces – the goal here is to cover every single surface. Also, when done, please don’t swallow it.
Other Tips for Better Dental Health
Brushing and flossing are non-negotiable, while using mouthwash is highly recommended. However, if you care about your teeth (or you’re already worried about them!), there are a number of things you can do to keep them in good shape.
Eat Less Sugar!
You’d think that before toothpaste, fluoride treatments, and fillings, people would have lost all their teeth before their 20th birthday. They did indeed have some primitive ways of keeping their mouths clean: chewing certain roots, rubbing charcoal powder on their teeth and so on, but these couldn’t have been too effective. Yet, archeologists often see this kind of thing:
The main reason that so few people in olden times needed to have their teeth pulled all comes down to sugar: naturally-occurring bacteria in your mouth rapidly consume this, excreting acids that attack tooth enamel.
Once sugar became available in Europe, dental health declined immediately. Since the sweet stuff was initially too expensive for anyone but the rich to afford, the aristocracy were the first to suffer. Black, rotting teeth actually became a status symbol, causing the lower classes to start dyeing their own to keep up with fashion. You cannot make this stuff up.
Moral of the story: sugar is really, really not good for your teeth. Try to cut back, or at least brush your teeth after eating ice cream.
While the name sounds a little weird, oil pulling simply means keeping a tablespoon of oil inside your mouth for up to 20 minutes, swirling it around once in a while. Bacteria that aren’t able to survive in oil simply get swept away, while the oil can also dissolve stains on your teeth.
This may seem a little weird, and having to keep your mouth shut while not swallowing for so long is difficult. Still, this Indian folk remedy is so cheap that you might as well try it – there are indications that it works.
Apart from containing a ton of sugar, soft drinks actually remove moisture from your body. Drinking water instead not only helps rinse out your mouth throughout the day, it keeps you hydrated enough to produce enough saliva. This, by itself, decreases the amount of bacteria in your mouth and helps to protect enamel.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Your teeth’s enamel and dentin both require calcium to remain strong, while your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium efficiently in the first place. Dairy products and tofu are good sources of calcium, while you can get enough vitamin D just by walking around in the sunlight.
We can also mention that eating highly acidic foods such as citrus temporarily lowers the pH in your mouth, increasing the rate of wear on your enamel. It might be a good idea to brush your teeth after drinking lemonade (or tequila, for that matter). There are also some people who claim that eating alkaline foods, such as fresh fruit and greens, can make your body and saliva more alkaline, but there’s no real evidence for this.
How Can I Make My Teeth Look Whiter?
It should be understood clearly that normal, healthy teeth are never pure white. If you see a model or movie star in a magazine with an alabaster smile, the most likely explanations are (a)Photoshop and (b)chemical treatments.
Enamel is actually slightly see-through, meaning that the dentin underneath affects your teeth’s color. It can happen, though, that the surface has also become stained by substances like coffee, red wine, and nicotine. In this case, there are a few things you can safely do.
You’ll be happy to know, for instance, that simply chewing on strawberries (which contain a chemical called malic acid) can strip away minor stains. Several other home remedies exist, including brushing your teeth with a paste made from activated carbon and rinsing your mouth with apple cider vinegar.
How Often Should I Visit a Dentist?
Some people only make the dreaded trip to the mouth doctor once they’re in pain or they need remedial or even reconstructive work done. This is, in every possible way, a huge mistake.
Depending on your health plan, regular checkups may seem like a substantial (and optional) expense. In the long run, however, they are almost certain to save you money. Problems tend to get worse rather than better when left alone, especially if you don’t even know about them.
Most of a normal dentist visit consists of them looking for potential worries, especially gingivitis and cavities that haven’t fully developed yet. At the same time, you can expect them to take some preventative steps, especially fluoride treatments and oral hygienist services.
Ideally, you will check in with your dentist every six months, while going more than a year between appointments puts you at greater risk. Think of it this way: if you get a bad haircut, a couple of months is the longest you might have to suffer. Once your teeth are gone, they never grow back.