You might think you have great oral hygiene if you brush and floss regularly and steer clear of Gummy Bears.
But many seemingly innocent everyday habits can damage your teeth – causing decay, eroding enamel or literally cracking teeth in half.
“Tooth enamel is extremely hard, but it’s not resistant to everything,” says dentist Alex Sharifian.
So if you want to keep your teeth strong and healthy, dental experts recommend cutting out the following habits.
1. CHEWING ON ICE
You could easily chip or even break a tooth or dislodge a filling if you chew on ice.
“It’s essentially chewing rocks,” says Jonathan Schwartz, a family and cosmetic dentist.
“While our teeth are covered by the hardest material in our bodies, they are not designed to hold up to that kind of stress,” he says.
2. DRINKING BOTTLED WATER
Some of the best everyday protection for teeth comes from drinking tap water, which is fluoridated. Fluoride fortifies teeth against decay and promotes remineralisation, which helps repair minor decay.
Most bottled water contains either no fluoride or less than is needed for good oral health, so hit the sink rather than the bottle for your eight glasses a day.
If you’re a big fan of the bottled stuff, dentist Gregg Lituchy recommends using an over-the-counter fluoride rinse to up your fluoride quotient, and using tap water to make coffee, tea and other flavoured beverages.
3. SIPPING SPORTS DRINKS
The trifecta of acidic components, sugars and chemical additives in sports drinks can weaken enamel, creating openings for bacteria to sneak in.
“Consuming excessive amounts of sports drinks may be worse for your dental health than soft drink,” says Sharifian.
If you must have Gatorade or the equivalent, knock it back all in one sitting, instead of sipping it throughout the day, which just puts the exposure on repeat. And consider sipping it through a straw.
Swish with water afterwards or chew sugar-free gum to neutralise the acids.
4. USING YOUR TEETH AS A TOOL
Using your teeth to open bottles, tear off sales tags or rip open plastic bags can cause you to to chip, crack or fracture your teeth.
But you could also seriously cut the inside of your mouth or even throw your jaw out of balance, which can lead to chronic jaw pain.
“I promise you, scissors or a knife is 100 per cent more effective than your teeth to get that package of chips open,” Schwartz says. “Teeth are also not meant to chew on pens, the ends of eyeglasses or straws, or to act as a third hand while carrying things,” he adds.
You may not realise how much pressure you’re exerting, and it can cause teeth to shift out of place or the enamel to splinter.
5. LOADING UP ON CARBS
Bread, pasta and crackers don’t start out as sticky, sugary junk food, but they quickly turn into sugars in your mouth.
“Bacteria in the mouth feed on that sugar, causing tooth decay,” says Lituchy. “I try not to eat too much highly processed starch, but if I’m going to go out and have a big bowl of pasta, I’m going to brush right after, before the bacteria can convert those sugars into acid that corrodes my teeth.
6. LEAVING YOUR TOOTHBRUSH OUT
Storing your toothbrush on the counter – especially clustered in a holder with other people’s toothbrushes – invites the mingling of bacteria, and you could easily catch something from a family member.
Plus, tiny particles of faecal matter can aerosolise (and land on your toothbrush) when you flush the toilet.
“Not that our mouths aren’t already full of bacteria,” Schwartz says, “but you don’t want to add to the mix from other things floating in the air in bathrooms.”
Try keeping your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet or using a disposable toothbrush shield that tamps down bacterial growth.
7. BRUSHING AT THE WRONG TIME
Brushing immediately after meals is usually wise, but avoid doing so after eating or drinking something highly acidic, like wine, coffee, soda, citrus fruits or fruit juices.
“After having something like a fruit smoothie, which is highly acidic, the enamel on your teeth will be temporarily weakened,” Lituchy explains. “Wait about 45 minutes before brushing to give your saliva a chance to dilute the acidity.”
Otherwise, he says, the abrasion of the toothbrush on the softened enamel could cause damage. You can also rinse with water to help neutralise the acid.
8. BRUSHING TOO HARD
Thorough is good; aggressive is bad.
Brushing too vigorously can not only irritate your gums and make teeth more sensitive to cold temperatures, but it can actually wear down your enamel and open the door to cavities.
One way to ensure a gentler touch is to use a soft-bristled toothbrush, which is firm enough to remove plaque, but soft enough to prevent damage by even the most enthusiastic brushers.
9. GIVING UP GUM
Sugary bubble gum is clearly a dental don’t, but chewing the sugarless stuff may improve oral health.
“Saliva is our body’s own best defence against cavities, so anything you can do to increase saliva production, especially after a meal, can help protect teeth,” says Schwartz.
Saliva contains many key components that naturally help remineralise teeth and keep the mouth from drying out.
“I tell my patients that chewing sugar-free gum after a meal is a great way to help not just beat bad breath, but also prevent cavities,” Schwartz says.
10. SUCKING ON STUFF
You probably know that sticky sweets that linger in your mouth – lollipops, caramels, hard candy and toffee – get a thumbs down from dentists, Sharifian says.
But many of us suck on other things, including cough drops and lemon wedges, which can likewise set us up for tooth decay.
Many cough drops contain refined sugars, so they’re no better than candy – unless you read the ingredient labels to find brands that have low or no sugar.
Lemons are very acidic and can corrode tooth enamel with repeated exposure. It’s fine to squeeze them into drinks, but don’t brush right afterward.