Tips for a Healthy Smile

By any measure, movie legend Gloria Swanson was a bit deranged when she swooned at the camera and intoned, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” But in those last moments of Sunset Boulevard, when she flashed that wide, defiant smile, one thing was for sure—her teeth were more than ready. We may not all be able to afford veneers at $1,000 a pop, but there are tips that can keep everyone grinning. And even though we’re grown-ups, a few basic reminders never hurt. (What would reality TV reveal about your flossing habits?) Prevention Basics When it comes to your mouth, the old “ounce of prevention” advice was never so pertinent. Millions of bacteria make their home there—millions. All these pesky little guys need is some minor sugary encouragement, and before you know it, you’ve got a pathogenic playground in your mouth. To keep bacteria under control, brushing and flossing are obvious and fundamental. These two simple steps remove the sticky film of plaque (bacteria) around and between your teeth. Left on too long, it hardens into tartar, and we all know how unpleasant it is to have that scraped off. Insider’s tip: Dry brush your teeth before regular brushing, says Trisha O’Hehir, RDH, author of The Toothpaste Secret. Start with a dry toothbrush and begin behind the bottom teeth. Brush until your mouth feels clean (don’t forget your tongue), and then rinse the brush with water, add toothpaste, and brush again. One U.S. study of 126 participants reduced tartar by 63 percent with this technique—better than using tartar-control toothpaste. Always use a soft brush to avoid damaging teeth and gums, and change the brush every three months. Read the labels on toothpastes and mouthwashes; some ingredients are toxic. (If a poison control center is mentioned in fly-speck-sized print, steer clear!) And if you’re getting a little careless with the flossing, consider the kissability factor: Flossing promotes appealingly fresh breath. Snacking 101 It doesn’t take an oral surgeon to figure out the root cause of most cavities. “Bugs [i.e., bacteria] plus sugar equals acid production,” says Michael P. Bonner, DDS. “These acids can dissolve enamel as well as tooth-root structure and result in a cavity.” While sticky candy is no friend to teeth, snacks like potato chips and cookies may be even more harmful, according to Lisa Drayer, MA, RD, author of The Beauty Diet. “Simple sugars are relatively easy to wash away, but food particles from starches tend to get lodged in between our teeth, providing a carbohydrate feast for plaque,” Drayer explains. Sugary sodas also bathe your teeth in sugar—up to ten teaspoons per can. Some drinks, like coffee, red wine, and colas stain teeth too. Substitute water or green tea instead, recommends Drayer. A bonus with green tea: In addition to numerous health benefits, it stops the growth of decay-causing bacteria. Better snack alternatives? Anything that increases the flow of saliva, the mouth’s brilliant backup plan for flushing out food particles and neutralizing acid. Reach for carrots, apples, or a small piece of hard cheese. Insider’s tip: There’s also a healthy newcomer on the snack horizon—xylitol. This natural sweetener crops up in most fruits and vegetables, but it’s becoming more common in products ranging from candy to gum to toothpaste and can even be used in place of table sugar. Studies have examined xylitol’s unusual carbon structure and its effectiveness in treating diabetes, obesity, and upper respiratory issues. It also benefits oral health by reducing cavities and bacteria, and chewing gum made with xylitol prevents plaque from sticking to enamel. How does it do this? “[Mouth] germs use excess sugars to build a sticky meshwork [over teeth],” explains John Peldyak, DMD. However, xylitol is more closely related to sugars with a 5-carbon structure, which acid-forming mouth germs can’t use. “Over time, xylitol weakens the harmful germs . . ., and the result is less acid, less plaque, fewer cavities, and healthier teeth and gums,” he says. Look for products sweetened primarily or entirely with xylitol. Supplement Your Smile Finally, supplement your diet with oral health nutrients like vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids (which promote healthy gums), calcium and magnesium (which work together to fight decay), and vitamin D (which helps absorb calcium). Dr. Bonner also includes coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10 (required to form gum tissue; helps reduce gingivitis), bioflavonoids (that help make collagen, the basis of gums and bone), and B complex (to promote overall oral health) among his list of top nutrients for a robust, hygienic mouth. A gleaming smile makes a great impression. It’s often the first thing we notice about each other and the last thing we remember. Are you ready for your close-up?