The basics of oral hygiene are pretty straightforward: Brush your teeth twice a day, floss daily, and visit your dentist regularly. Still, the details can get messy, and myths can pop up faster than a cavity on Halloween.
“You’d be amazed at what we hear from our patients every day about what they think are good practices,” says Dr. Steven DeLisle, DDS, founder of Children’s Dentistry of Las Vegas. “It’s easy to get the impression that people think of dental health in terms of what their dentist is going to think the next time he sees them.”
(In other words, yes, your dentist can tell if you never flossed until the day of your appointment.)
We asked five dentists about the most cringe-worthy myths they hear about oral hygiene, and here’s what they said.
MYTH 1: No tooth pain? No problem.
“Oftentimes when teeth begin to hurt, they’ve deteriorated to the point where a simple filling may not be enough,” says Dr. Mike Golpa, DDS, director of G4 by Golpa, a dental implant service. “Cavities and other problems … may begin long before they start hurting.”
MYTH 2: Stop flossing if it’s making your gums bleed.
“In reality, your gums bleed because you don’t floss enough or correctly,” says Dr. Larry Evola, DDS, of Forestream Dental in New York state. “Gums aren’t supposed to bleed when you brush or floss.”
Bleeding and sensitive gums are actually a warning sign of gingivitis (an early stage of gum disease), which is caused by poor oral hygiene. Consistently brushing and flossing can reverse the progression of gum disease, and you should notice less bleeding over time.
MYTH 3: Brush harder to clean teeth better.
Brushing your teeth too hard “can actually harm your teeth by eroding the hard enamel that protects the inside of the tooth from cavities and decay, and can erode the soft gum tissue away as well,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer, DMD, chief clinical officer with SmileDirectClub.
“I always recommend a toothbrush with soft bristles to avoid overly aggressive brushing,” says Dr. Sulitzer.
MYTH 4: White teeth = clean teeth.
Imagine someone with impeccable oral hygiene habits, but with some staining caused by their daily morning coffee. Now imagine someone who obsesses over a shiny white smile, but who misses several spots while brushing toward the back of their mouth. See the problem with this theory?
“Whiteness is not a measure of cleanliness. Teeth come in all different shades,” says Dr. DeLisle. “The measure of cleanliness is the absence of plaque and food particles, not their whiteness.”
MYTH 5: You won’t get cavities if you don’t eat a lot of sweets.
Many people assume cavities are only for that coworker who lingers by the candy jar all day, or the toddler who drinks nothing but grape juice. They might be shocked to hear they have a cavity or two themselves. “But I hardly eat any sweets!” they might say in their defense to the dentist.
“Eating sweets alone is not the major cause of cavities, [although] it definitely contributes,” says Dr. Inna Chern, DDS, dentist at New York General Dentistry. “Cavities are formed when bacteria in the mouth produce acid as a byproduct of sugar metabolism. This acid erodes enamel away and forms cavities.”
The bacteria in your mouth love it when carbs stick to your teeth: This is what they like to feed on. Sugary foods are known for sticking to teeth, but they’re not the only ones. In fact, Dr. Chern notes that vegetarians and vegans may notice a jump in cavities due to the increased carbs they consume.
That doesn’t mean give up all carbs. (It’s your body’s preferred source of energy, after all, and should account for 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.) Good oral hygiene—brushing teeth at least twice a day, flossing daily, and regular dentist visits—can help mediate the effect of carbs on your teeth. Plus, drinking plenty of water can help flush food particles (and bacteria) away from your teeth between brushings.
What experts know about oral hygiene has improved a lot over the decades: Learn more about the evolution of oral hygiene here.