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Toothbrushes can wear out quickly and knowing the signs that you need to get a new one is important if you plan to keep your teeth healthy.
Brushing and flossing daily and having regular dental checkups and cleanings help ensure that you will keep all or most of your teeth healthy. But all that brushing just means you wear the brushes out quickly.
Knowing how often to change toothbrushes can differ for each person. Although most dental professionals recommend that you change your toothbrush every three to four months, those guidelines vary according to your brushing habits and your overall health.
Walking down the tooth care aisle at your local superstore, it might be hard to believe that there are only two basic types of toothbrushes: electric and manual.
Manual toothbrushes are the standard for most people. They are compact, easy to travel with, and require no electricity or batteries to work at their peak capacity. They are quiet and inexpensive—even free if your dentist gives you a new one at each of your dental appointments.
Small, handy manual toothbrushes are ready to use any time you want. No waiting for batteries to charge or looking for an available outlet. A manual toothbrush is silent and gives you total control over the amount of pressure it puts on your teeth, the angle you use to massage and clean the gums, and the length of time you spend brushing.
Design options for manual toothbrushes are nearly uncountable. In ancient times, people used items such as frayed tree twigs and boar’s hairs to fashion devices to clean their teeth. Thankfully, today’s manufacturers make toothbrush bristles with nylon or plastic, although there are some “natural” bristled brushes available that still use boar’s hair. However, these tend to harbor bacteria, and most dental professionals do not recommend them.
Bristles of modern toothbrushes have a wide range of shapes and various levels of stiffness. Bristle bundles on toothbrush heads might be flat (all cut to the same level), multi-leveled (some rows of bristles are longer than others), tufted (bristles are bunched in groups), or angled (longer at one end of the toothbrush head than at the opposite end).
There is also a wide range of toothbrush head sizes. Bristle heads that are too large make it almost impossible to reach the back teeth without gagging. It is best to use the smallest sized head that allows comfortable access to all areas of the mouth.
Stiffness of toothbrush bristles ranges from very soft to hard. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends using a brush with soft bristles.¹ These clean the plaque, bacteria, and food debris from the teeth efficiently while protecting the gums from trauma and avoiding abrasion of the tooth enamel. Medium or hard-bristled toothbrushes can damage the enamel when used for many years and can hurt the sensitive gum tissue.
The second type of toothbrushes are the electric ones. While both manual and electric toothbrushes are effective in removing debris from the teeth and gums, many patients prefer to use brushes powered by batteries or electricity.
The elderly, children, and people with disabilities that affect manual dexterity such as Parkinson’s, carpal tunnel syndrome, or arthritis benefit greatly from powered brushes. Patients wearing braces and those with implants and fixed bridges may also enjoy using a powered toothbrush.
Traveling with a powered toothbrush can sometimes be a problem. They are bulky to pack and you might need special adaptors for the electrical outlets in some countries.
Although these types of brushes are far more expensive to purchase and maintain, many people prefer using them over manual brushes and feel they clean around the gums better. Some models have built-in timers to ensure you spend at least two minutes brushing, as recommended by most dental professionals. Many come with sensors that alert you if you are applying too much or too little pressure on your teeth.
Powered toothbrushes use a variety of head movements to achieve the greatest cleaning efficiency. Some use a side-to-side movement, others oscillate, rotate, spin in a circle, or use ultrasonic vibrations. Whichever type of movement a powered toothbrush uses, they keep the teeth and gums clean and healthy when used according to the manufacturer’s and your dentist’s directions.
Whichever type of toothbrush you prefer, choose the type that will make you want to brush regularly and that you feel comfortable using. Do not feel pressured into spending a lot of money on the latest toothbrushing gadget: an inexpensive manual toothbrush can be just as good at cleaning your teeth and gums as a powered one, if used correctly and for the required length of time.
To ensure continued efficient removal of plaque and bacteria from your teeth, you must clean and maintain your toothbrush properly. Both manual and powered toothbrushes can harbor germs if not kept clean and stored correctly.
Millions of bacteria, including fecal coliform, can colonize on toothbrushes. The ADA, however, has noted that there is no evidence that these bacteria cause adverse health effects. Even so, to minimize the growth of unwanted bacteria on toothbrush bristles, the ADA recommends rinsing the brush thoroughly after each use under tap water to remove any remaining toothpaste or saliva that could harbor unhealthy germs.²
In addition to careful rinsing after each use, the ADA also recommends that you never share a toothbrush, even with close family members. Only one person should use a toothbrush from the time you first take it out of the package until you throw it away.
Sharing a toothbrush can cause bacteria found in the saliva to be passed back and forth between users. Exchanging fluids in this way could pass diseases such as viruses or herpes to the other users.
Storing your toothbrush properly is just as important as not sharing it with others and rinsing it after each use. The ADA recommends storing a toothbrush upright (in a vertical position) with the bristles up. This allows the bristles to air dry between uses. Air drying for several hours kills many types of bacteria that need a moist environment to survive.
Storing a toothbrush in a plastic cap or another type of closed container can allow bacteria on the brush to flourish and grow. A moist toothbrush kept in a closed container promotes the growth of germs while leaving the bristles out in the open air so it can dry lowers the number of bacteria on the bristles.
While the ADA assures us that using a toothbrush with some lingering bacteria causes no adverse health effects, some patients may want to sanitize their toothbrush for their own peace of mind.
Soaking the bristles in a solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide or an alcohol-containing mouthwash reduces the bacterial load significantly (85%). Do not put your toothbrush in a microwave oven or dishwasher because the heat may melt the bristles and handle.³
There are many good reasons to change your toothbrush regularly.
The buildup of bacteria on the bristles is just the first reason. Others include illnesses, frayed or matted bristles, and bristles coming loose from the head.
If you have been ill, even with just a head cold, you should throw your toothbrush away. This is especially important if you store your toothbrush near those of other household members. Avoid passing viruses and colds back and forth between family members or roommates whenever possible. Throwing away toothbrushes that are contaminated with infectious material is a cheap and easy way to help protect all family members when one of them is sick.
When toothbrush bristles become frayed, matted, or curled out at the edges, it is past time for a replacement. A person who brushes vigorously three or four times a day will need to replace the brush due to wear and frayed bristles more often than someone who only brushes once a day and whose toothbrush bristles are still straight.
Replace a toothbrush if it has bristles that curl at the edges. These are no longer effective at removing plaque and should be discarded. A brush with curled bristles will not get your teeth clean, no matter how long you brush or what technique you use.
Remember, it is not the length of time the brush has been used that is important: it is the condition of the bristles that determines when you should replace the brush.
The dental profession recommends brushing your teeth twice each day for two minutes each time.⁴ Using a soft-bristled brush and following these guidelines means your brush should last three or four months before needing replacement.
However, for those people who like to brush more often, say three or four times each day, and who tend to use a lot of pressure with the brush, more frequent replacement might be necessary.
Brushing your teeth twice a day is just one component of keeping your teeth healthy and preventing gum disease. You should also clean between your teeth daily, limit sugary beverages and snacks and see your dentist regularly. Learn how enrolling in dental insurance can help you afford regular trips to the dentist.
Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment, or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.
Links to external sites are provided for your convenience in locating related information and services. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees expressly disclaim any responsibility for and do not maintain, control, recommend, or endorse third-party sites, organizations, products, or services and make no representation as to the completeness, suitability, or quality thereof.
https://www.ada.org/en/member-center/oral-health-topics/toothbrushes, accessed August 2020
https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/b/brushing-your-teeth, accessed August 2020
Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.(exp.08/22)
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