Updated 27 February 2015

How to look after your teeth

Millions of South Africans are totally uneducated about oral care, statistics have shown.


Millions of South Africans are totally uneducated about oral care, statistics have shown. While some people pay a visit to the dentist at least twice a year, others have never even sat in a dentist's chair.

If you want to keep your teeth into old age, though, it's important to get with the programme.

Routine care
Most dental woes can be attributed to plaque, the sticky layer that forms on your teeth due to food particles, microorganisms and other organic matter.

Cavities are caused by bacteria in plaque that produce acids. Plaque also causes periodontal (gum) disease, a dangerous infection that can erode bone and destroy the tissues surrounding the teeth.

The best way to protect your teeth is to remove plaque daily before it builds up. Brushing removes plaque from large surfaces of the teeth and gums, if done correctly. Flossing removes plaque between the teeth.


It is possible to brush your teeth the wrong way.

Do it right:

  • Brush at least twice a day, and no more than three times.
  • Do not eat after cleaning teeth at bedtime, as salivary flow decreases as we sleep.
  • Brush lightly, as hard brushing could cause gums to recede.
  • Brush for at least two minutes.
  • Have a set routine, and brush your teeth in the same order every day.
  • Use a soft-bristled brush, as it is gentler on the gums.
  • Replace your toothbrush regularly. As soon as the bristles start to split, its time to get a new one.
  • Electric toothbrushes are fine but not necessary.
  • Choose the right toothpaste: what works for others might not work for you.

How to brush:

  • Apply toothpaste to the bristles.
  • Start with the brush at a 45-degree angle to the teeth at the gum line.
  • Brush either in circular motions or upwards and downwards.
  • Make sure to brush all the chewing surfaces thoroughly.
  • Hold the brush vertically to reach the inside surfaces of the front teeth.
  • Be sure that the head of the brush is not too large to reach into the back of the mouth.
  • Rinse with water to clear your mouth of food residue and plaque.
  • Brush your tongue with your toothbrush from back to front. Don't go too far back that you gag.


Dental floss is an extension of the brush, and is a means of cleaning surfaces that the brush can't reach.

Do it right:

  • Floss once a day
  • Take your time
  • Don't skimp on the floss: use as much as you need to clean your teeth thoroughly
  • Choose the floss that works best for you. If your teeth are set close together, it's better to use a waxed floss, which is less likely to catch or fray in tight spots.

How to floss:

  • Take a length of floss and wind the ends around your index fingers, so that you can hold it taught, unwinding and winding as you go, in order to have a clean section of floss for each tooth.
  • Slip the thread gently between the teeth and under the gum line. Remember you're after the plaque on the side of the tooth.
  • When you reach the gum line, curve the floss into a C-shape and slide it carefully between tooth and gum until you feel a resistance.
  • Pull the floss down the side of one tooth, pull it out, then reinsert it for the side of the adjacent tooth.
  • Avoid sawing back and forth.
  • If your gums bleed at first, keep on flossing - the bleeding should subside as the gums get used to flossing.

Other cleaning tools

  • Mouthwashes and rinses - the type of mouthwash and rinse that you use will depend on your dental needs. Over-the-counter rinses to freshen the breath, add fluoride or kill bacteria that cause gingivitis are available. There are also mouthwashes designed to loosen plaque before you brush. If you need to avoid alcohol, read ingredients carefully. Speak to your dentist or oral hygienist to recommend one that will suit your needs.
  • Small interdental brushes - tiny bristle or filament brushes that can fit between teeth and come in different sizes and handle designs. These brushes clean better than floss when the gum tissue does not completely fill the space between your teeth. They can also help people who have orthodontic bands to remove plaque from around wires and brackets.
  • Oral irrigators - an electric device that pumps out water in a slim, steady or pulsating pace. They are effective at flushing out food and bacteria by-product in periodontal pockets and orthodontic devices. They are particularly useful for delivering medication to hard-to-reach places. Irrigators should be used in addition to brushing and flossing and should not be used independently.

Report problems
In addition to regular care and dental appointments, do not hesitate to contact your dentist should you develop any of the following signs and symptoms of gum disease:

  • Tender or inflamed gums,
  • Gums that bleed when you brush them, even if they're not sore,
  • Gums that are pulling away from your teeth: you may notice that your teeth seem longer,
  • Pus around your teeth and gums when you press on the gums,
  • A continual bad taste in your mouth,
  • Loose teeth, or
  • Changes in the way your top and bottom teeth touch, or changes in the feel of your dentures.

Tips for eating right
Do not nibble food or sip drinks continuously. Allow time between eating occasions for saliva to neutralise acids and repair the teeth.

Avoid snacking on:

  • Candies, cookies, cakes and pies,
  • Sugary gum,
  • Crackers, breadsticks and chips, or
  • Dried fruits and raisins.


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