Okay, you know to stay away from saltwater taffy and brush your teeth before bed. But if you think that means you get an A+ for oral hygiene, you're off the mark; even the most health-conscious people have a few habits that undermine their oral health. And we mean overall health—taking care of your teeth and gums isn't just about a pretty smile. Gum disease means chronic inflammation, which is a risk factor for a laundry list of more serious conditions.
We called in top docs to tackle the bad habits that are ruining your teeth: Hector L. Sarmiento, DMD, MSc, (Board Certified Periodontist and professor at UPenn School of Dental Medicine) and Stuart J. Froum, DDS, PC (Clinical Professor and Director of Clinical Research Dept. of Periodontology and Implant Dentistry at New York University College of Dentistry) talk about what they wish their patients would stop doing.
1. Sugar-free beverages
You've probably heard that sugar-free beverages aren't always the healthier choice. For one, downing the fake stuff can actually make you crave more sugar. Well, it isn't doing your dental health any favors either.
A study conducted by the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre at the University of Melbourne, Australia, tested 23 sugar-free beverages (including flavored mineral water, soft drinks, and sports drinks) on extracted human teeth without dental caries (decay). They discovered that consumption of these beverages leads to tooth erosion by 30 to 50 percent—specifically due to their high levels of citric acid.
2. Eating Too Much Salad
Don’t get us wrong—we’re big advocates for getting your greens. But it turns out that one side effect of that is you might need to do a little extra brushing.
“Salads are loaded with calcium and magnesium, which is great for the body," says Froum, “but that builds up a lot of tartar in the mouth.”
That tartar, or the crusty build-up on your teeth, contains bacteria that can be harmful for both teeth and gums. The extra calcium and magnesium in salad also lead to extra plaque, which is a happy home for germs.
3. Using Harsh Toothpaste
All that super-white ultra-clean stuff sounds great on the package, but it turns out that a harsh, abrasive toothpaste might do more harm than good.
“Many toothpastes that brag about whitening will take a coffee stain off your teeth, but they’ll wear the teeth or the gums away,” Froum told us. You may need to go for something milder, or else risk irritating your gums.
4. A Very Acidic Diet
We all know that coffee is bad for teeth, but it’s for a different reason than you may think...
Froum points out that it’s easy for a dentist or periodontist to remove stains from coffee, but it’s not as easy to repair the enamel that gets damaged by acid. Enamel, the thin layer that protects your teeth, is very susceptible to harm from acidic foods. A highly acidic diet leads to a low pH content in saliva—in other words, long after you swallow your food the acid is still damaging your teeth.
5. Drinking Bottled Water
Aside from the environmental and health risks bottled water poses, it also can cause problems for your mouth.
Froum explains, “It lacks one thing that we put in our own water to prevent cavities: fluoride.” Tap water is fortified with fluoride, which is a critical nutrient for preventing cavities. It’s not readily available in many foods, so for most people tap water is the only major source of fluoride. Off the tap water? Try adding a fluoride supplement to your diet to make sure your teeth stay in tact.
6. Being Sloppy With White Strips
The appeal of super-white teeth is strong, especially combined with the idea that you can slap something on while you foam roll and actually see results. But it turns out, maybe not so surprisingly, that this is risky business.
“If it’s kept exactly to the place of the stain, you don’t have problems. But people aren’t that careful,” says Froum. “White strips will go over onto the gum and irritate the gum. If anything is strong enough to take the stain off the tooth, it’s strong enough to irritate the gum.”
The problem with that? Besides being painful and uncomfortable, reckless stripping can lead to gum recession. "Any overspill onto the gums will cause an irritation due to cutting the blood supply in the area and eventually die out or recede," Sarmiento tells us. This requires a surgical procedure to correct.
If you're waking up with a headache or jaw-pain that can last throughout the day, chances are you're a grinder.
"This will cause teeth to get loose and will ultimately jeopardize the bone around the tooth and gums," says Sarmiento. "Studies have shown that heavy biting forces with the presence of plaque can cause faster and more aggressive periodontal disease."
Aside from tooth damage and pain, serious grinding can lead to facial collapse, according to Froum. That’s right—grinding your teeth actually ages you. The best way to stave it off? At night, a thick plastic retainer can keep you from gnashing away. During the day, try to notice if you’re squeezing your jaw shut or grinding your teeth; awareness of the habit is the first step towards eliminating it.
Think your oral health practices are unimpeachable? This one is for you. When you brush too much, or too hard, you can end up exposing the root of your tooth. This softer area can’t stand up to your harsh scrubbing. "Brushing too hard or with inappropriate movements (side to side) can hurt the gums and cause them to recede," says Sarmiento. "It usually starts to make the gums thinner to a point where it disappears."
Once the root is exposed, you have even more problems. “The root is made of sementum, which is softer than bone or crown,” Froum points out. “A person with a very strong electric toothbrush, for example, may be able to wear down the enamel and certainly the root of the tooth.” So sure, maybe it feels good to brush after every morsel. But you could end up needing a root canal.
9. Letting sugar sit in your mouth
As any second grader can tell you, sugar means cavities. But what you may not know is that how you eat your sugar can make all the difference.
“When you drink wine, you usually like to keep it in your mouth for a while. Wine is loaded with sugar,” Froum points out. “If you’re not going to brush your teeth or rinse your mouth out within 20 to 30 minutes after you’ve taken a carbohydrate like that in your mouth, the acids are going to start doing damage.”
Another common culprit is sucking candy, which lets you hold sugar in your mouth for a long time. Not ready to give it up? Make sure you’re staying hydrated—grabbing a sip of water can flush out your mouth, reducing your risk for cavities.
10. Biting Your Nails
Ragged nails and bleeding cuticles are no fun. But you're doing damage to your mouth, too.
"People who chew their nails can cause a defect on the gums called gingival clefts," says Sarmiento. That means painful split gums revealing the roots of your teeth. Basically, scary vampire teeth. How else can you end up with this painful condition? "Bitting on objects like pens, tooth picks, and paper clips," says Sarmiento. These habits also lead to chipped teeth and scratches in your mouth.
Surprise! Another health problem is linked to stress. Yup, you got it: Teeth and gum issues.
"Gums are the barometer of the body. [Stress can] create a breakdown on the gums and surrounding tissue," said Sarmiento. "Often we get cases where we cannot find traditional risk factors associated with periodontal disease and usually a stress test is needed." Check out our tips for how to kick it here.