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A Guide to Healthy Teeth

Your Dental Health Questions, Answered

Brush up on your dental knowledge with this bite-size Q&A and get healthy teeth and gums for life.

By Tula Karras
Toothbrushes in toothbrush holderTetra Images/Getty Images

Q. What is the best kind of toothpaste to use?

At minimum, purchase a toothpaste that carries the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of acceptance, which means that it has been independently tested, lives up to any label claims, and contains fluoride, a mineral that keeps tooth enamel strong and prevents tooth decay.

If you have sensitive teeth, toothpastes labeled for this can help lessen pain. These products contain minerals, like strontium chloride and potassium nitrate, that block the tiny tubules in teeth that lead to the nerves. You generally need to use the toothpaste for several weeks to feel an improvement, as the mineral needs to accumulate over time.

If your dentist says you have excess tartar (which can lead to tooth decay), look for a tartar-control toothpaste containing pyrophosphate, which can help reduce the buildup. Some new formulas boast the antibacterial ingredient triclosan, which is often found in liquid hand washes and can help cut down on gingivitis, tartar buildup, and bad breath, according to the ADA.

If your teeth look dingy, toothpastes marketed as "whitening" can help brighten your smile. These pastes usually contain tiny crystals or mild chemicals that loosen debris and remove minor stains. Those with baking soda work in the same way.

Q. Do I really need to use mouthwash?

If you brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, floss at least once daily, and have little decay or gum disease, you probably don’t need to use a mouth rinse. If, on the other hand, you are prone to cavities or plaque buildup, you may benefit from using an antiseptic or fluoride-containing rinse (one that bears the ADA seal of acceptance) after brushing. Ask your dentist if he thinks you need one.

Q. What causes tooth sensitivity?

Sensitivity occurs when the microscopic tubes in the dentin layer, which is right under the enamel, become exposed as a result of receding gums or the wearing away of enamel. The tubes lead to the innermost layer of the tooth, where the nerves are located, says Carolyn Taggart-Burns, a professor of dentistry at Creighton University, in Omaha.

What to do: To avoid exposing the dentin layer, brush gently and avoid acidic foods and drinks, including citrus fruits and juices, wine (especially white), and all sodas (especially light-colored ones flavored with citric acid). Even unflavored carbonated water is slightly acidic and can cause tooth sensitivity. Using a toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth should also help ease the problem. If it doesn’t, ask your dentist about gum grafting or an in-office treatment to help seal the dentin layer, says Susan Karabin, president of the American Academy of Periodontology and an associate clinical professor at Columbia University.

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