We’ve all had to become a little more resourceful in the time of social distancing. From making bread and plunging toilets to cutting hair and giving manicures, a lot of things we once outsourced to professionals are now up to us to do on our own. If you’ve had to postpone your regular dental checkup due to the coronavirus outbreak, you may be wondering if it’s possible to get that squeaky-clean feeling at home. You can achieve something close, but maybe don’t rush to buy the little hook your hygienist uses. As Sonya Krasilnikov, a dentist and co-founder of Dental House, warns, “a dental cleaning may be more technique sensitive than you think.”
We asked Krasilnikov and eight more dentists what you actually can do at home while you wait, and they offered plenty of suggestions that’ll make your dentist proud when you finally make it into the office. One thing you probably won’t want to hear mid-quarantine, but we’re going to tell you anyway: In addition to the tools and tips below, nearly all the dentists advise minimizing your intake of sugar, which attracts tooth-decaying bacteria. That’s going to be hard in this golden age of baked goods.
It’s not very exciting, but brushing and flossing are still the best things you can do to keep your teeth clean. “The purpose of brushing and flossing is to remove the plaque that forms around our teeth and gum lines,” says Heather Kunen, dentist and co-founder of Beam Street. If plaque (the thin film of bacteria composed of food and saliva on the tooth surface) isn’t removed regularly, she says, it hardens and becomes more difficult to scrape off, leading to tooth and gum disease. Since you’re not brushing your teeth in a hurry to make it into work on time, use this as an opportunity to make sure you’re getting in a full two minutes of brushing — 30 seconds for each quadrant of the mouth.
Most experts prefer electric toothbrushes, which use vibrations to blast plaque off the tooth’s surface. “The nice thing about electric toothbrushes is you don’t actually have to use the scrubbing motion that you do with a manual brush,” says dentist Samantha Rawdin of Gallery 57 Dental. “Just hold it at a 45-degree angle toward the gums and slowly walk it around the gum line.” Like many other dentists we’ve spoken to in the past, Siama Muhammad of Brooklyn Oak Dental Care is a fan of the Philips Sonicare DiamondClean, which uses ultrasonic vibrations to remove plaque. Make sure to pair your toothbrush with a fluoride toothpaste. “Fluoride serves to help remineralize and strengthen enamel, essentially adding a protective layer of armor against invading bacteria,” Kunen says.
We’ve written about coconut-oil-coated Cocofloss before, and Rawdin says that using it “feels like I just got my teeth cleaned.” Because it’s a little thicker than standard floss, it has “a loofahlike effect, where it really does scrub in between the teeth and underneath the gum line,” she says. It also comes in unique flavors like strawberry and dark chocolate. Whatever floss you’re using, Rawdin advises wrapping it in a C shape around the sides of each tooth and gently shimmying it up and down.
For some, string floss can be cumbersome and difficult to maneuver, especially when you get into the back teeth. If that describes you, Muhammad recommends this flosser that’s as long as a toothbrush, allowing it to easily reach the back molars and even wisdom teeth (if you have them). She says it’s “awesome” for getting that “feeling that you’re clean on all surfaces, because it’s reaching those surfaces that the toothbrush can’t reach in between your teeth.”
Dentists Elisa Mello and Ramin Tabib of NYC Smile Design recommend trying these tablets out now while you have some extra time on your hands. Typically used to teach kids proper brushing techniques, plaque-disclosing tablets can help you improve your regular routine by showing you the areas you’ve been missing. After brushing, chew one up, swish it around your mouth, then spit it out. It’ll temporarily dye plaque spots on your teeth red so that you see where you should spend a little more time brushing.
“If you are trying to keep your teeth extra clean, you may want to invest in a water flosser,” Krasilnikov says. Especially “if you have orthodontic brackets, bridges, implants, or gum disease. This will help you clean around those extremely hard-to-reach places.” Even if you don’t have any of those issues, adding a water flosser to your routine (in addition to, not as a replacement for, regular flossing) will help you get into the narrow spaces in between your teeth. As Strategist writer Liza Corsillo learned in her investigation into water flossers and picks, most dentists recommend the Waterpik brand. “Use of a Waterpik reduces inflammation of the gums, which will decrease or eliminate bleeding from the gums,” says Brooklyn-based dentist Elliot Eskenazi. “This is important because it minimizes the risk of infection due to gingivitis, inflammation of gum tissue.”
For a two-in-one punch, Mello uses this electric-toothbrush-water-flosser combo device.
If you want to add some more power to your teeth-cleaning arsenal, Marc Schlenoff, dentist and head of clinical development at Tend, recommends both Proxabrushes and interdental picks for really going deep into the crevices in between the teeth. “The Proxabrush looks like an old-fashioned bristle brush but is very small and flexible, making it easy to get deep into crevices between teeth,” he says. “Interdental picks are special plastic sticks that are easy to use to clean between teeth, which is the hardest area to keep clean. They look similar to toothpicks, but will not break off like a wooden toothpick often does.”
Rawdin recommends occasionally brushing your teeth with baking soda for a deeper clean. “You just sprinkle it on your toothbrush with some water and scrub your teeth,” she says. “It does help to give you that squeaky-clean feeling.” Because baking soda is abrasive, you don’t want to do this more than once a week.
While most dentists don’t recommend using stainless-steel scaling and scraping instruments at home, they are an option if you’re desperate. And careful. “Exercise extreme caution and a light touch,” says Rawdin. “You don’t have to go in there and start digging around. The edges are sharp, and you really can take out chunks of gum tissue.” The mirror in this kit is helpful for seeing what you’re doing, but don’t expect to be able to clean your whole mouth: Without the benefit of ideal lighting, a perfectly angled chair, and a trained hygienist, dentist Mark Burhenne of AskTheDentist.com says he could only “hand-scale probably four or five of my lower anterior [front] teeth” and “do an 80 percent job” on his wife’s teeth.
Muhammad, who normally doesn’t recommend these tools but admits we’re in an “unprecedented time,” says if you must use them, do not go deeper than three millimeters (again, hard to estimate on your own) underneath the gum. This space, called the “free gingival margin,” is the area where the gum sits atop the tooth surface and is where hygienists focus on cleaning. She says to use a light flick of the wrist when touching the tip of the hook-shaped tool to the tooth surface to remove visible plaque and to follow the natural, scalloped shape of the gum line. If the whole concept scares you, don’t feel like you need to wield these tools on your own. “You can still keep your mouth healthy even though there is buildup on your teeth,” says Tabib. Flossing and brushing will prevent additional buildup from forming until you can get to the dentist.