5 Things You Never Knew About Your Toothbrush

04/28/2014 09:49 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014

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By Emma Haak

You use it every day, but when was the last time you put real thought into your toothbrush? An effective tool is essential for a proper brushing, which not only shines up your pearly whites, but also prevents bacteria and inflammation -- both of which are linked to everything from heart disease to dementia. We asked the experts for a brushup on what features matter most.

Shape
Should you opt for an electric brush with a round, rotating head or a traditional rectangular manual brush? Many dentists believe they're both effective if you're using the right technique, but a review by the healthcare nonprofit the Cochrane Collaboration found that over a three-month period, round, rotating heads (which resemble the type used during professional cleanings) removed 11 percent more plaque than manual brushes. If you go the manual route, dentist Kimberly Harms, DDS, a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association, recommends that people with narrow jaws (your dentist can tell you) choose a brush with a tapered head.

Size
There's no one-size-fits-all toothbrush, but keep in mind that big brushes can miss plaque buildup in tight spots between teeth and hard-to-reach areas in the back. "You'll know you've found the right size head if it can comfortably clean all the way around your last top molar," says Fremont, California–based dentist Ruchi Sahota, DDS.

Bristles
Always opt for soft or extra soft. "Many people mistakenly believe that hard-bristle brushes do a more thorough job, but the opposite is true," says Harms. "Because hard bristles don't bend well, they can miss areas under the gums and between teeth that are most in need of cleaning." And they're harder on your gums: A 2011 study in the Journal of Periodontology found that people who brushed with stiffer bristles experienced an 11 percent increase in gum bleeding after eight weeks.

Handle
Unless you find them easier to hold, fancy padded grips that appear to be ergonomically designed have no effect on how well you brush, Harms says.

Is it Time to Change Your Toothbrush?

If it's been more than four months, yes.

According to the American Dental Association, more than 40 percent of Americans don't know how often to change their toothbrushes. GoodMouth, a new mail-order subscription service, eliminates the guesswork. "Many people use the same brush for six months or even a year," says dentist Seth Keiles, DMD, the company's cofounder and chief medical officer. "In that time, worn bristles become less effective at removing plaque, food particles, and bacteria, putting you at increased risk for cavities and gum disease." GoodMouth will send you a new brush every other month for a $5 delivery fee. And for every person who signs up, the company will donate two toothbrushes to underserved communities in the U.S. that lack access to quality dental care.

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  • Your Stuffy Nose
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  • Pass the tissues -- and some gum, please. When a cold prevents you from breathing through your nose, you're forced to inhale and exhale through your mouth. This dries out the tissues and reduces the flow of saliva -- the mouths built-in cleanser, which not only rinses away food particles but also neutralizes decay-causing acids and acts as a natural antiseptic to keep bacteria in check. The less saliva, the more bacteria -- and the more potent the odor. An easy remedy (for your breath, if not your cold): Chewing gum -- as long as it's sugarless -- has been shown to increase the flow of saliva.
  • Your Movie Treats
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  • Bacteria have a sweet tooth, too. When you eat sticky candy like gummy bears, cherry vines and even mint chews, the bacteria "has a party," says Kimberly Harms, DDS, the consumer adviser for the American Dental Association. It feasts on the sugar and spreads to all areas of your mouth -- including hard-to-reach areas in the grooves of the teeth. But here's a surprise: Dentists have started recommending chocolate as a more healthful alternative to candy. Harms says that chocolate not only dissolves relatively quickly but also has less sugar than other candy, as well as a small amount of calcium to protect enamel.
  • Your Mouthwash?
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  • Yep. Many brands of mouthwash and antibacterial mouth rinse contain alcohol -- sometimes accounting for as much as 27 percent of total ingredients -- that dries out your mouth, leaving a stale smell after the minty freshness wears off in an hour or so. Look for brands with no or little alcohol and save them for first dates or job interviews (or when recommended by a doctor).
  • Your Super-Low-Carb Lifestyle
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  • After a rice-free sashimi dinner or an all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue, your body is tasked with metabolizing a high amount of protein. This produces a by-product of ammonia, which, among other places in the body, is released in your breath (fortunately, your dining companions will suffer the same condition). Eating this way on a regular basis -- by following a high-protein diet, for example -- requires your body to constantly excrete these by-products, as well as molecules called ketones, which can cause your breath to smell in a way thats described as rotten fruit -- or just rotten.
  • Your Gram Negatives
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  • Of all the different types of bacteria that live in your mouth, the most pungent, by far, are a kind called "gram-negative." Not only do they produce gassy-smelling sulfuric compounds, but they also have an extra cell layer that makes them especially resilient. They burrow down below the gum line and hide out in the crevices of the tongue. Flossing helps remove them, but another option is brushing your tongue, which has been shown to reduce bad breath by 70 percent. Clean your entire tongue, especially the back where more there are more peaks (or papillae) and valleys, as well as the cheeks, recommends Gary H. Westerman, DDS, a professor of dentistry at Creighton University. You can also use a toothbrush or a drugstore tongue-brush, but an Orabrush -- yes, the thing you've seen on YouTube -- has longer, softer bristles as well as a scraper to collect the bacteria once it's been dislodged.
  • Your Anxiety
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  • Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweating, you're practically panting with stress -- and your mouth is probably not smelling that great (argh, dry mouth again!). In addition to taking a few calming inhalations, remember to take several rehydrating, breath-freshening sips of water.
  • Your Salmon with Aioli Sauce -- but Without a Glass of...
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  • Finally, a cure for garlic breath that doesn't involve forcing your partner to eat the offender with you. Drinking milk can lower the concentration of odor-emitting compounds from garlic in the mouth (and nose), Ohio State University researchers recently discovered. Whole milk seemed to be slightly more effective than skim (due to the absorbent fat) and had the most noticeable results when it was consumed during a meal (although drinking a glass afterward can help, too).

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