You only get one set of choppers, and repair costs more than prevention. So be kind to your teeth. Here are some mistakes you may not know you're making.
1. Brushing Too Hard
"If you brush too vigorously, you can wear away at your enamel and cause sensitivity and even gum recession," says dentist Nuntiya Kakanantadilok, director of the division of pediatric dentistry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Buy a brush with soft bristles and move it in small circles, not side to side, she says.
2. Eating too Many Acidic Foods
"They can wear away enamel," says Kakanantadilok. That's a problem because that top protective layer of the teeth can never grow back. Nerves below it lose their protection, and you may start to feel pain from hot or cold. Some acidic, erosion-causing culprits: regular (and diet) soda, orange juice, wine, sports drinks, sour gummy candies, and lemons. "Think about your tooth as a seashell," says dentist Martha Ann Keels, division chief for pediatric dentistry at Duke Children's Hospital. "If you put a seashell in Coke, it will disappear."
If you can't resist these dental no-no's, at least neutralize the pH in your mouth by consuming water or cheese with them, says Keels. And instead of swishing acidic drinks around your in mouth, use a straw to limit contact with teeth, says dentist Richard H. Price, an American Dental Association consumer adviser.
3. Too Much Teeth Whitening
It's normal to want pearlier whites. After all, says Price, "As we get older, teeth get darker." But don't overdo it. "Basically, you're exposing your teeth to a very mild acid," says Kakanantadilok. "Excessive bleaching can weaken enamel. Over time, even mild acid can begin to erode the mineral content of the tooth, causing the enamel to become porous and eventually to break down and become more sensitive."
Kakanantadilok says over-the-counter white strips are milder than in-office bleaching systems. And who wants teeth that look like Chiclets gum, anyway? "We try to educate people that 'normal' tooth color is not white but more ivory," says Paul Casamassimo, director of the Pediatric Oral Health Research and Policy Center for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
4. Chasing Hot Pizza With a Cold Drink
When you bite into a piece of hot pizza, you're expanding your enamel. "Then you take a big dose of cold cola, not with a straw, and you're going to cause contraction," says Price. That can create what's called a "craze line" -- a vertical, hair-thin crack in the enamel that can lead to breaks and stains. "It would be similar to what happens to a porcelain plate that goes from hot to cold," says Price.
"Teeth will contract or expand with changes in temperature," says Casamassimo. "When that happens, if it's done too quickly, it's damaging." One solution: Like Price, eat hot pizza with a knife and fork.
5. Using the Wrong Toothpaste
Pick one that's not too abrasive: The FDA rates toothpastes using a "relative dentin abrasion" (RDA) scale. Anything above 100 is considered abrasive, above 150 is highly abrasive, and above 200 is not recommended, says Kakanantadilok. For your reference: Colgate Total gets 70, Colgate Baking Soda & Peroxide Whitening Toothpaste gets 145, and Arm & Hammer Dental Care PM gets 168.
Use toothpaste with fluoride: The mineral can't re-grow enamel, but it plays a big role in making teeth stronger. "It's like putting on a protective raincoat or waxing your car," says Keels.
6. Using Them As a Tool
You might think this sounds crazy, but lots of people do this absent-mindedly. "The teeth are meant to chew foods and look pretty when you smile, not to open up candy wrappers or chomp down on ice cubes," says dentist Warren Brill, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
If you use your chompers to open nail polish bottles, beer bottles, or anything else, you can cause micro-fractures that may not be apparent for years, says Kakanantadilok. Such abuse can also cause teeth to break or fillings to pop out.
7. Not Brushing and Flossing Enough
Some people think this is enough -- some people are wrong. Brush for two minutes a day, twice a day. Otherwise, you increase the odds that you'll get cavities, which, if untreated, can spread into the jaw and cause infections. If you're at work and can't get to your toothbrush, a good solution is to keep a box of dental floss in your purse or drawer. "Floss first, if that's all you can do," says Keels.
- By Karen Springen