We’re clearing up the biggest debate of dentistry.
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Reader question: "This one is always controversial among my family—should you brush your teeth before or after breakfast?" —Kali Hendricks

With discussions surrounding the importance of routines at an all-time high, we're all scrambling to nail the best brushing routine. The universally accepted consensus is that we should be brushing our teeth twice a day. What that rule doesn't specify, however, is when exactly to do your brushing.

Bamboo Wood Toothbrush with Biodegradable Cup
Credit: MirageC/Getty Images

Personally, I was in the post-breakfast camp for the longest time, mainly because the wedded taste of fluoride and orange juice has to be the most unappetizing combination in the world. And it makes sense, right? Brushing your teeth before eating simply seems counterproductive.

However, the right answer is that you should brush your teeth—*cue drumroll*—before breakfast. According to dentists, it all comes down to plaque and acid byproducts. When you brush your teeth first thing in the morning, you're removing all the plaque biofilm that accumulated while you were sleeping (this is also why you get morning breath). You want to remove plaque from the surface of your teeth roughly every 12 hours, so brushing your teeth and tongue right when you wake up is ideal. Brushing before eating can also coat your teeth with a protective barrier against the acids in your food.

If you eat without brushing your teeth, you're essentially eating with all that plaque on your teeth. And since plaque uses the foods you eat to produce more bacteria and acid byproducts, brushing your teeth right after you eat will scrub around the acids that are in your mouth. Plus, your enamel is temporarily weakened after you eat, so brushing too soon can increase your risk of enamel demineralization (which can be a problem if you're already at risk for tooth decay).

The exception to the brushing pre-breakfast rule is if your meal contains a lot of sugar, such as doughnuts or sugary cereals. Letting sugar sit is the worst thing for your teeth, so brushing afterwards can help prevent cavities. (However, keep in mind that most breakfast foods are acidic—including fruit, orange juice, and coffee—which is why it's generally better to brush before breakfast.) 

If you absolutely can't stand going to work with coffee breath, Angelique Freking, DDS, Director of Dentistry at Park Slope Dentistry Seventh Avenue in New York City, recommends swishing your mouth with water to help wash away acids. And if you're completely bent on brushing your teeth after breakfast anyway, try to at least wait a moment after eating to let the acids neutralize. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes for saliva to remineralize and restore the enamel to its previous state. 

And hey, if you'd really like to go above and beyond when it comes to plaque control, you can always brush your teeth before and 30 minutes after breakfast. It's a lot to ask, but dentists agree that it's the best option for curbing plaque buildup and acid erosion, while effectively removing all the food debris from breakfast.

In conclusion, before breakfast is the best time to brush your teeth in the morning, but if you take the right precautions, you can make brushing after breakfast work. "Ultimately, consistency is key with good habits. I'd choose consistently brushing after breakfast versus inconsistently brushing before breakfast," says Dr. Freking. "At the very least, you won't have to relive the memory of that onion omelet as it recirculates in your N95 mask."