Brushing Your Teeth Away

Too much zeal -- and the wrong toothbrush -- are creating a new set of problems

Dentists warn that improper brushing is causing an increasing incidence of tooth and gum abrasion, which can lead to sensitivity, gum recession, and periodontal disease. Bad brush strokes are partly responsible -- but so is the toothbrush.

Dentists recommend using a soft brush, but try to find one. Firm and medium brushes are far more prevalent on drugstore shelves. "It really perplexes me because nobody should use a firm or medium brush," says Dr. Sally Cram, a periodontist in Washington. Even if you spot a brush labeled soft, it may not mean much. "One manufacturer's soft could be another's medium," says Clifford Whall, who directs the American Dental Assn.'s seal of approval program. Ironically, the ADA puts its seal on firm and medium as well as soft brushes.

Your best bet is to get a toothbrush labeled extra soft, ultra soft, or sensitive. Manufacturers usually distribute them only to dentists because consumers mistakenly think they're not firm enough and don't buy them. Ask your dentist for a sample. You can also buy online from or makers such as Sunstar Butler ( Cost is around $3 plus shipping, less in bulk.

Even the softest brush can do damage if you're heavy-handed. "People get very aggressive" because they think they've got to really scrub to get their teeth clean, says Gissela Anderson, a professor at the University of Texas Dental Branch at Houston. Indeed, a study last year by the University of Newcastle in England found that subjects using soft-bristled brushes caused trauma by brushing too long and too hard. Although it was easy to limit brushing time to the recommended two minutes by setting a timer, training subjects to exert the proper pressure was harder. Irwin Mandel, professor emeritus and doctor of dentistry at Columbia University School of Dental & Oral Surgery and an expert on brushing technique, advises holding the brush in your fingers like a pencil.

STOP SAWING. Another option is to invest $50 to $100 in an electric toothbrush such as the Braun Oral-B 3D Excel or Sonicare Plaque Remover, which shut off when you bear down too hard. The $15 Alert manual toothbrush lights up when you need to let up. Less high-tech indicators that you are pressing too hard are mashed-down bristles and tingly gums.

Whatever brush you choose, hold it at a 45-degree angle to your teeth and work it up and down or in circles to the gum line. Never saw back and forth. And you don't really need to brush after every meal. Dentists say brushing once a day before bedtime is sufficient if you do a thorough job and floss. If you're worried about morning mouth or garlic breath, brush more often -- or don't spare the mouthwash.

By Kate Murphy

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