Taking care of your pearly whites isn’t rocket science, but it’s easy to slip into habits that could cause heartache—er, toothache—in the long run. We got the latest on giving your teeth the TLC they need from two New York City pros: Alice Lee, DDS, an assistant professor in the Department of Dentistry for Montefiore Health System, and Alison Newgard, DDS, an assistant professor of clinical dentistry at Columbia University College of Dentistry, will clue you in on where you could be going wrong.
Multitasking while you brush
Every minute in the morning feels precious, so it’s tempting to brush your teeth in the shower or while scrolling through your Twitter feed. “To each his own,” says Dr. Newgard, “but I prefer patients to be in front of a mirror, over the sink; you can be sure to hit all the surfaces of your teeth, and you’ll do a more thorough job when you’re not distracted.” Better to leave the bathroom a few minutes later having given proper attention to each step of your prep.
Overcleaning your toothbrush
Thinking about running your brush through the dishwasher or zapping it in the microwave to disinfect it? Think again: While we’ve all seen those stories about toothbrushes harboring gross bacteria, the CDC says there’s no evidence that anyone has ever gotten sick from their own toothbrush. Just give your brush a good rinse with regular old tap water, let it air-dry, and store it upright where it’s not touching anyone else’s brush. More drastic cleaning measures may damage your brush, the CDC notes, which defeats its purpose.
Using social media as your dentist
The web is full of weird and (seemingly) wonderful DIY dental tips that can hurt much more than they’ll help. Read our lips: Don’t even go there. “I’ve heard of patients who go on Pinterest and find ways to whiten their teeth there—by swishing with straight peroxide, for example—which are not good for their teeth,” Dr. Newgard says. “Use ADA-approved products that have been tested.” (Another online tip to skip: trying to close up a gap in your teeth with DIY rubber band braces.)
There have been several recent scares about dental x-rays, including a 2012 study published in the journal Cancer reporting a possible link between dental x-rays and benign brain tumors. However, the American Cancer Society notes that the study does not establish that x-rays actually cause the tumors, and that some people in the study had x-rays years ago, when radiation exposure from dental x-rays was much higher. “X-rays are important because not all conditions can be identified with a visual exam,” says Dr. Lee. “For example, there might be cavities between the teeth, or there might be a cyst or other pathology in the jaw.” If you’re concerned about radiation, talk to your dentist about ways to minimize the number of x-rays you get.
Storing your wet toothbrush in a travel case
It’s important to stow your brush somewhere sanitary before you tuck it into your luggage for a trip—and equally important to set it free once you unpack. “Bacteria thrives in moist environments,” says Dr. Lee. “While you should use a cover or case during transport, make sure you take your toothbrush out and allow it to air dry when you reach your destination.” No stand-up holder in your hotel room? If you’ve got a cup for drinking water, that’ll do just fine.
Hanging on to that tongue or lip piercing
Self-expression is well and good, but when it takes the form of a tongue barbell or lip ring, it can come at a high price. “I’ve treated patients who fractured or chipped their teeth from biting on their piercings,” Dr. Lee says. “I’ve also had patients with gum recession and other soft-tissue injuries from their piercing rubbing against tender areas of the mouth.” Had your piercing for ages with no trouble, you say? Just wait: Studies have shown that your risk of dental problems from tongue and lip piercings gets worse the longer you have them.
Drinking apple cider vinegar
According to assorted Hollywood celebrities and natural health experts, drinking unfiltered apple-cider vinegar can have near-miraculous effects on your insides. Research doesn’t support those claims, but dentists are sure of one thing: The acetic acid in the vinegar is terrible for your tooth enamel. When it comes downing ACV (as proponents call it), Dr. Newgard says, even a good rinse with water afterward might not mitigate the quaff’s potential damage: “I just think you shouldn’t use it at all.” (Our suggestion: Instead of drinking apple cider vinegar straight, try it in a vinaigrette, or use it to soothe sunburn or get chlorine out of your hair.)
Ditching your retainer
If you once had braces, whether as a teen or as an adult, it’s smart to keep wearing your retainer for as long as your orthodontist recommends—which may mean several nights a week, forever. “A patient will have perfect teeth from braces,” Dr. Newgard says, “and then they won’t wear a retainer at night and their teeth will shift and they’ll be unhappy all over again.” Honor thy adolescent self, and keep those teeth in line for good. (Got a fixed retainer? Be sure to keep the device clean: “They can be plaque traps,” Dr. Newgard says.)
Brushing right after your morning OJ
Like to start your day with a glass of orange juice—or oh-so-trendy lemon water? Brushing right afterward can wear away your enamel. “The acidic environment weakens the teeth enamel and erosion can occur during this vulnerable period,” Dr. Lee says, “so neutralize your mouth first by drinking milk or water, or rinsing with a baking soda solution—or just waiting 30 minutes.” The same goes for vomiting, Dr. Lee says, since that’s acidic, too. (Gross but true!) If you’ve thrown up, be sure to rinse before scrubbing out your mouth.