Honestly, it’s a fair question.
If you’re cleaning your mouth diligently multiple times each day, why *do* you need special professional teeth cleaning appointments every few months or so?
As one person remarked to us before, “It’s like exercising regularly and being told that you need to go in periodically for a super intense fitness session or something. Doesn’t that sound silly?”
That does sound silly — but, fortunately, dental cleanings aren’t just a “super intense” version of at-home cleaning.
This post is meant to answer some of the doubts and questions we’ve heard about dental cleaning over the years.
You might’ve considered some of them yourself, while others might make you go “hmmm”, but for all of them, we’ll provide candid, no-nonsense explanations that’ll help you understand why regular cleaning and check ups deserve the time (and money) that you commit to them.
Our dental clinic in Port Coquitlam is home to 6 dentists who have over a century of combined clinical experience. Having treated hundreds of patients in Canada and abroad, we understand the common (and not-so-common) reservations people have about visiting the dentist.
While there’s definitely a deep cleaning component to in-clinic check ups, at the most basic level, their purpose is to give your mouth a clean slate and catch health problems as early as possible.
The effort you put in at home is about keeping that “clean slate” as clean as it can be, but it can only do so much.
Specifically, it has limitations when it comes to thoroughly removing plaque in hard-to-reach areas and maintaining long-term plaque resistance. To show you the difference that professional cleaning makes, we’ve outlined four key shortcomings of at-home care.
Let’s go through each one starting with tartar removal.
This point isn’t meant to be a hot take, so let us first clarify by saying that brushing and flossing are tremendously important.
Please don’t stop doing those things because you read that they can’t remove tartar!
Our point here is to explain the limitations of what flossing and brushing can achieve, and how your dental checkups step up to fill those gaps.
To do that, we first need to understand some teeth cleaning basics.
Flossing and brushing are able to remove what’s known as plaque. It’s a thin film that’s made up of different types of bacteria, with the main tooth-harming one being Streptococcus mutans.
The bacteria in plaque consume leftover sugar and starch particles in your mouth, leaving behind acid that dissolves your tooth enamel and causes cavities or gum disease.
Flossing and brushing *can* remove plaque. The main problem is that, because the mouth is full of nooks and crevices, there are areas that get missed even with super meticulous daily care.
This is where tartar enters the picture.
When plaque isn’t cleared away, it doesn’t magically disappear. Instead, it piles up and hardens, turning into what’s known as tartar. At this stage, flossing and brushing *can’t* remove it anymore.
In tartar form, the bacteria are able to sit on your teeth, eating away at your enamel and inflaming your gums.
Check ups and teeth cleaning solve this problem. Your hygienist has specialized tools, like manual or ultrasonic scalers, that are able to break down stuck on tartar and reset your teeth back to a healthier state.
There you have it: home care for plaque, check ups for tartar, both for great oral health.
There are some great at-home dental tools and protective formulas available these days.
With options out there like pressure-sensitive toothbrushes and cordless water flossers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the options for home dental care are better now than they’ve ever been.
Does that mean it’s time to cancel your upcoming dental check up? Not quite.
That’s partly because at-home products don't provide any kind of assessment about your overall oral health in the way that a dentist can, and also because you’d still benefit from the other points mentioned in this article.
For now, though, we’ll just focus on how well available home products clean near or below the gum line compared to check ups since that’s what this section is about.
We’ll use the typical hygienist-performed cleaning as a reference point. If your teeth and gums look like they’re in good condition, the hygienist will use a dental scaler to clean from between 1 to 3 millimeters below your gum line. In areas where they notice early signs of gum disease (gingivitis), that cleaning could extend as far down as 5 millimeters.
Now, let’s compare that to at-home brushing and flossing. In terms of mechanical cleaning (physically removing plaque), string floss can get slightly - about a millimeter - below the gum line, but only in certain areas. Tooth brushes aren’t designed to reach below the gum line, so they typically don’t help much in that regard.
Winner: dental check ups?
They’re the tried-and-true option for now, but it’s also worth mentioning that new products - toothpastes, specifically - have arrived in the past few years promising to fight bacteria below the gum line. Up to 4 millimeters deep, in some cases!
The question is — do they work as advertised?
Among the dentists and hygienists here at Poco Comfort Dentistry, the jury is out. We know that the Canadian Dental Association has given certain products their seal of approval (meaning, in this case, that they endorse the products’ claims of cleaning below the gum line), but we’ve also seen that, at least in some cases, the referenced studies were sponsored by the toothpaste manufacturers.
That doesn’t mean the results are invalid or untrue, but there’s certainly a conflict of interest.
For us, the priority is always about helping patients take care of their teeth as conveniently and effectively as possible, so we’ll be keeping an eye on these toothpastes. If they’re effective as they claim, you can be sure that we’ll start telling our patients about them.
Between flossing, brushing, and rinsing, none of the activities in a typical teeth cleaning routine actually perform the same function as clinical polishing.
Not even brushing? Yes, not even brushing.
The main purpose of brushing is to remove plaque film and food particles. Polishing, by comparison, is meant to remove stains and smooth out the surface of your teeth.
The difference is clear when you look at the tools that are used. A toothbrush has firm bristles that are designed to catch and push away debris, whereas a hygienist’s polishing tool has a soft rubber cup that lets it mold to the shape of your tooth to cover as much surface area as possible.
One effect of this is - as we mentioned before - whitening your teeth by removing stains, but the (arguably) more important effect is how it makes your teeth more resistant to plaque buildup.
We’ll explain: the bacteria that cause plaque and cavity formation have an easier time taking root and growing on rougher tooth surfaces.
Polishing makes things tough for them. Not only do they have a harder time gaining a foothold in the first place, but they also have a harder time clinging to your teeth when you brush or rinse.
That, right there, is the real value of polishing: it both protects your teeth and makes your at-home care more effective.
You know how sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing?
Fluoride is one of those things.
Generally, fluoride is effective at preventing - and to some degree even reversing - tooth decay. It also discourages the growth and spread of new cavity-causing bacteria. That’s why it’s touted as a key ingredient in oral health products like toothpastes and mouthwashes.
Most dental practices also provide fluoride treatment as a part of their routine teeth cleanings and checkups, usually as a rinse or varnish.
So, why can’t you just pick up a bottle of the stuff dentists give you and skip the visit? It’s because - when taken in high concentrations over a long period of time - fluoride can be toxic, causing irreversible teeth staining as well as hardening of the bones and joints.
That might sound alarming, but with typical store-bought products, it’s very difficult to reach dangerous levels of fluoride intake. That’s why they’re readily available and considered safe for anyone to use.
With clinical or prescription-strength fluoride products, things are different. Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate the difference.
On average, over-the-counter mouthwash products are formulated with about 230 ppm (parts per million) of fluoride. Comparatively, clinical-strength varnishes often have fluoride concentrations of 22,600 ppm.
Nope, that’s not a typo — the fluoride rinse or varnish you receive at the dentist is nearly 100x stronger than what’s available at the store.
That high concentration translates into an extra layer of lasting protection for your teeth, one that at-home care can’t achieve. However, it also means there’s a level of risk involved — which is why it needs to be precisely administered in a clinical setting.
You might not notice the benefits of clinical teeth cleaning in your day-to-day life, but - like many well-built systems - that’s actually just a sign that they’re working correctly.
To recap, professional teeth cleaning…
We’d be glad to have you here at Poco Comfort Dentistry, even if you’re bringing tough questions about dentistry with you!
We want everything about your care to be comfortable. That applies to your care, of course, but also to how you feel about dentistry in general. If that means we have to take extra time to help you understand why something works the way it does, or whether you have any alternative options — no problem.
You can get in touch with us to ask more questions or schedule your first appointment by calling (604) 474-2510 or messaging us online.