Home Oral Care

Key Points

  • Home oral care recommendations from the ADA are based on data from clinical studies.
  • While general recommendations may adequately address the needs for many patients, a dentist may tailor home oral care recommendations to fit the individual patient’s needs and wants.
  • Home oral care is an important contributor to oral health and can help lessen the need for extensive dental intervention in the future.

Introduction

Spending the right amount of time engaged in appropriate home oral care is undoubtedly essential to helping minimize the risk of caries and periodontal disease.  An individual who visits the dentist twice a year for an oral exam and dental prophylaxis will spend approximately two hours per year in the dental chair.  The time for that same person to brush and clean between his or her teeth each day might be estimated to be around 30 hours per year.  Considering the amount of time that should be devoted to daily oral hygiene, it is important to understand the scientific evidence that supports home oral care recommendations made to patients.

In 2017, the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs identified three aspects of home oral care that dentists should discuss with their patients:

  1. General recommendations that are applicable to most people;
  2. Personalized recommendations specifically targeted to meet the needs of the individual patient, especially patients at increased risk of caries and/or gingivitis; and 
  3. Lifestyle considerations to enhance oral health and wellness.

The general and personalized recommendations were developed in accordance with a rapid evidence assessment methodology,1 meaning that the evidence examined was derived from existing systematic reviews.  Lifestyle considerations comport with current ADA policy.  This Oral Health Topic page is an executive summary of that work and relevant ADA policy.

General Recommendations for the Prevention of Caries and Gingivitis

1) Brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste

While a seemingly simple statement, the guidance for brushing twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste weaves together a number of discrete components.

Toothbrushing frequency
Review of the scientific literature, along with guidance from governmental organizations and professional associations found sufficient evidence to support the contention that twice-daily brushing, when compared with lower frequencies, was optimal for reducing risk of caries,2-4 gingival recession or periodontitis.5-7  It is important to recognize that in these studies, it was the frequency of tooth-brushing with a fluoride toothpaste that was evaluated rather than tooth-brushing alone.

Fluoride toothpaste
Although the measures used to assess the benefit varied, studies examining the effect of over-the-counter (OTC) fluoride dentifrice on caries incidence in children and adolescents found the fraction of caries prevented ranged from 16% per tooth to 31% per surface versus placebo or no dentifrice, and concluded that fluoride-containing toothpaste was effective in caries control.4, 8, 9  In addition, high level evidence shows that 5,000 ppm fluoride (available with a prescription) results in significantly more arrest of root caries lesions than use of OTC levels of fluoride (1,000 – 1,500ppm).10

Toothbrushing duration
Data examining the question of optimal duration of daily tooth-brushing encounters relies on plaque indices which are surrogate measures rather than direct measure of caries or gingivitis.  Understanding that the use of surrogate measures decreases the certainty with which a recommendation can be made, the available systematic reviews found a brushing duration of two minutes was associated with bigger reduction in plaque than brushing for a single minute.11, 12  Two minutes per whole mouth can also be expressed as thirty seconds per quadrant or about four seconds per tooth.

2) Clean between your teeth daily

While cleaning between teeth is important to maintaining oral health, it is a concept that must overcome several barriers to adoption. ” Flossing” is often used as a shorthand, common term for interdental cleaning, which can become problematic in the real world where many report a strong distaste for that activity.13 Some people presume flossing as ineffective or unnecessary, which can also make it harder for them to adopt the daily habit. Flossing is a technique-sensitive intervention14 as exemplified by the disparity in benefit observed when comparing study designs involving self-flossing and professional flossing.15 Where patients do not see positive results from flossing, they may not continue to do so.

Using flossing as shorthand for interdental cleaning can also be problematic in that patients may be unaware of alternative devices that may be more pleasant or effective for them. A meta-review, which included the available devices developed for this purpose (i.e. dental floss, interdental brushes, oral irrigators, and wood sticks), addressed the question “What is the effect of mechanical inter-dental plaque removal in addition to tooth brushing on managing gingivitis in adults?”  The strength of the evidence on the benefit ranged from weak to moderate depending on the device in question.16

Thus, there may not be one “best” interdental cleaning method; rather, the best method for any given patient may be one in which they will regularly perform. A guiding principle which is relevant to  interdental cleaning is: “best care for each patient rests neither in clinician judgment nor scientific evidence but rather in the art of combining the two through interaction with the patient to find the best option for each individual.”17

3) Eat a healthy diet that limits sugary beverages and snacks

While eating a healthy diet is important for overall health and well-being, a review of the literature found little in terms of the effects of micronutrients on the risk of caries or periodontal disease.  However, the conclusion of numerous systematic reviews on the effect of the macronutrient content of the diet, specifically of sugar, is that there is an association between sugar intake and caries.18-20  A review of the evidence supporting nine international guidelines recommending decreased consumption of sugar found consistent recommendations from all the groups while noting that they relied on different data and rationales.18

4) See your dentist regularly for prevention and treatment of oral disease

Viewed through the prism of the primary prevention of caries and/or gingivitis, a systematic review of the literature failed to arrive at consensus regarding optimal recall frequency to minimize either caries21, 22 or periodontal disease risk23 in part due to limited availability of studies addressing this topic.  Nonetheless, in terms of the balance between resource allocation and risk reduction, it can be concluded that there is merit in tailoring a patient’s recall interval to individual need based on assessed risk of disease.21, 24

Previously, the ADA Healthy Smile Tips advised people to “Visit your dentist regularly.”  However, dentists are doctors of oral health, which encompasses both the prevention and treatment of oral disease.  The current recommendation goes a step further than its predecessor in articulating the duality of the dental visits.  Dental care includes actions to reduce disease risk, as well as the formulation and execution of a treatment plan when disease is present.

Personalized Recommendations for the Prevention of Caries and Gingivitis

While generalized recommendations for home oral care may be appropriate to help optimize oral wellness for many patients, those found to be at elevated risk of caries and/or gingivitis, may ask their dentists to provide guidance on additional action steps that they can take to reduce their risk of oral disease.25  To help address this reality, the Council on Scientific Affairs recommends that dentists: 

  • Design a home care regimen with specific recommendations for oral hygiene. This may involve consideration of not only the person’s individual oral disease risk, but the needs and wants of the patient.
  • Offer direction concerning lifestyle changes.  This is addressed in the next section, entitled “Lifestyle Considerations.”  
  • Provide guidance on dental products and mechanical devices. This includes detailed suggestions that can help patients make decisions about dental hygiene practices and products.  Patients may look to their dentists for guidance and recommendations to help discern among the plethora of home oral care products and mechanical devices that lay claim to oral health benefit.  Dentists and patients can look to the ADA Seal of Acceptance program as a source of validated information regarding the safety and efficacy of many home oral care products.

After careful review of the available evidence, the Council on Scientific Affairs provides the following rationale to inform decision-making between dentists and patients on products and mechanical devices that can be considered as adjunct therapies and modalities for the prevention of caries and/or gingivitis:

1) Antimicrobials
For individuals with increased risk for gingivitis or periodontal disease, there is evidence that over-the-counter oral care products containing specific antimicrobial active ingredients can decrease risk of gingivitis.  Systematic reviews found that mouth rinses containing an antimicrobial effective amount of essential oil(s) (with or without alcohol) or cetylpyrdinium chloride,26-28 and toothpastes containing triclosan or stannous fluoride,29-31 were associated with decreased risk of supragingival plaque and gingivitis.

2) Fluoride Mouth rinses
With regards to caries risk reduction, there is strong evidence supporting the use of fluoride-containing mouth rinses by children at elevated caries risk;32 and low level evidence on the benefit of adults using fluoride mouth rinse to decrease their risk of root caries.10

3) Power Toothbrushes
Powered toothbrushes provide effective removal of dental plaque and reduction in gingival inflammation.11, 33 Though there may be statistically significant improvement in dental plaque removal or gingival inflammation when comparing use of a powered toothbrush with a manual toothbrush, the difference may not be clinically meaningful.33 However, when brushing technique is a concern such as for patients with special needs, those who require the help of a caregiver for activities of daily living, or those with manual dexterity deficit, the use of a powered toothbrush has been found to provide substantive benefit in plaque reduction.34-38

4) Interdental Cleaning Devices
Recent analysis using NHANES data found that adults who more frequently reported using floss or other devices to clean between their teeth were found less likely to have periodontitis.39  Because of the barriers to interdental cleaning, it may not be effective to tell patients that they must floss and expect it to become a regular part of their oral home care routine. Instead, dentists can support effective home oral care by gauging their patient’s level of understanding, learning about their motivation, and then serving as a “coach” by communicating and promoting daily cleaning between their teeth.40 Discussing the various interdental cleaning devices can help educate patients on available options and provide them with some of the skills necessary to be effective stewards of their own oral health.

Lifestyle Considerations for the Prevention of Caries and Gingivitis

Dentists can provide, promote or direct patients to information about lifestyle behaviors and/or services that can aid in reducing their risk.

Beyond the general and personalized recommendations above, there are three specific ADA policies regarding aspects that fall under the rubric of lifestyle considerations with roles to help prevent caries and gingivitis:

1) Consumption of Fluoridated Water
Much of the literature evaluated in systematic reviews examining the association between consumption of fluoridated water and reduced levels of caries in primary and permanent dentition derives from studies conducted before the 1980’s.41  One experiment, in which a Canadian community discontinued its community water fluoridation to allow for the comparison of caries rates within a socioeconomically similar, adjacent community which maintained its water fluoridation demonstrated a significant increase in primary tooth decay and an increasing trend for increased decay in permanent dentition 2.5 – 3 years post cessation among residents who reported usually drinking tap water.42  In 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General expressed the view that community water fluoridation was an important component for developing a culture of disease prevention and helping to ensure health equity for all.43

2) Use of Tobacco Products
While the various forms of tobacco have a variety of health consequences, the oral consequences of cigarette smoking44 and smokeless tobacco products45 can include adverse effects on gingival health, enamel discoloration and erosion, and oral cancer.  For these reasons, the ADA has long advocated for smoking and tobacco cessation initiatives both at the policy and practice levels.

3) Oral Piercings
The literature on the oral consequences of oral piercings show tooth fracture, tooth wear and gingival recession among the commonly reported adverse events,46 and the ADA established policy discouraging oral piercing in 1998.

This information was prepared & provided by the ADA Science Institute’s Center for Scientific Information. The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs reviewed and approved the content of this page.

Last Updated: January 18, 2018