teeth week

The $1 Bristly Rods I Use to Deep Clean My Mouth (After Brushing and Flossing)

Photo: Courtesy Retailer

Like many people, I always thought a daily routine of brushing — with an electric Philips Sonicare, no less — and flossing was about the best I could do to care for my teeth. Even if some days it still (literally) left a bad taste in my mouth — because as anyone who has tried to maneuver a finicky string between two hard-to-reach molars knows, there are often some bits you can’t quite seem to get out. That was until my 26-year-old dentist, who I now realize is wise beyond her years, introduced me to these tiny bristle-covered rods called interdental brushes, which, despite sounding kind of like a medieval torture device, she assured me were “so much more comfortable than flossing.” I followed doctor’s orders and bought a pack.

My first go with one of Swedish company TePe’s interdental brushes happened after I ate some particularly stringy asparagus. Even after brushing and flossing, I could still feel errant strands trapped between my back molars. The first thing I noticed while using the interdental brush was that I did not feel like my mouth was full of my own fingers (something I always think when flossing, even when I’ve used less-cumbersome floss picks). The brushes have flattened handles you can firmly grip between thumb and forefinger, making their tiny heads easy to move. Gently pushing one between two teeth can feel awkward at first (to me it felt like opening up a gap that maybe shouldn’t be there), but I got used to it, and have found that just a mild back and forth movement between teeth and around the gum line is often all I need to obliterate any lingering detritus in hard-to-reach places.

The brushes come in nine color-coded widths — pink is the smallest at 0.4 millimeters; black is the largest at 1.5 mm — and when deciding on a size, the European Federation of Periodontology cautions to pick the brush that isn’t so big it will “cause trauma” when you push it in the spaces between your teeth. My dentist helped me determine the right size for me — the yellow .7 mm brush that, width-wise, sits exactly in the middle of TePe’s range — by measuring the gaps between my teeth (she said I could also try to estimate the gap size at home). But, for $7, TePe sells the complete set of the nine brushes, so you can figure out which sizes work for you before committing.

I use the brushes daily, and you can reuse one for a day or two by cleaning it with sufficiently hot water (they do tend to conk out after about three days, though). The brushes haven’t entirely stopped me from flossing, though, as I’ve found string is still the only thing small enough to fit into gaps near the top of my teeth. So I’ll use my Sonicare, floss, then grab a TePe — and I won’t rinse my mouth in between, because my dentist told me the effects of the toothpaste I use will be enhanced if I let it linger on my teeth while scrubbing with the interdental brushes (you have to rinse the brushes as you use them, so it wouldn’t make sense to put toothpaste on the things themselves).

Because they’re made to slip between two teeth, I’ve found the brushes far more effective than any toothpick, which are often too wide to really get in there. (I’ve admittedly never tried a water pick, but the gadgets have always seemed too elaborate to me, plus I found it telling that my wise-beyond-her-years dentist recommended a pack of these instead of one of those.) On a recent weekend away, I neglected to bring my brushes — even though they come with a handy travel cap — and found myself slightly uneasy until I got home and pulled one from my bathroom cabinet. Because as delicious as the pulled pork, slaw, and doughy pretzel buns I ate on the road were, none of the food itself moved me as much as poking what remained of it out of my mouth.

TePe Interdental Brush Cleaners Mixed Pack

The mixed pack of interdental brushes comes with one in each size, so it’s ideal for new users who want to figure out the width that is most comfortable.

TePe Interdental Brush Cleaners

The author’s favored brush size, in a 25-pack.

TePe Interdental Brush Cleaners Extra Soft

The author’s favorite brush size in a version with extra-soft bristles, if you’ve got more sensitive gums. It’s pictured here alongside its travel cap.

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The Bristly Rods I Deep Clean My Mouth With (After Brushing)