You know how it is at the end of a long day. You stumble into the bathroom with barely enough energy to even wash your face. You see your toothbrush in the corner and think: You'll skip the toothbrushing just for tonight.
As it turns out, your teeth can indeed afford to miss a night or two of brushing – a month.
"The only impact might be on your relationship with your partner from the bad breath!" quipped Yap Xin Ying, a senior oral health therapist from National Dental Centre Singapore.
But consistently skipping toothbrushing isn't a good idea as it sets you up for turning these occasional misses into a bad habit, said Yap. "Bad habits are easy to pick up and hard to get rid of."
Speaking of bad habits, if you think picking your teeth after a meal lets you get away with toothbrushing, it's a resounding "no". Plus, it's not good social graces to treat your fellow diners to a view of your mouth all while flicking food bits everywhere.
Covering your mouth while picking your teeth doesn't make it more socially acceptable – we know what you're doing. And neither is using the flattened end of a straw, or worse, a fingernail to get at the food debris jammed in-between your teeth.
WHAT'S THE DAMAGE?
First, skipping toothbrushing. Just two to three days of not brushing your teeth can cause the bacterial plaque coating on your teeth and gums to harden and form tartar.
"Once tartar is formed, it can only be removed by a dental professional during a dental scaling," said Yap. Tartar is a magnet for more plaque to accumulate, which only leads to thicker and more toxic bacterial buildup, she explained.
In just a few days, you may develop inflammation in the gums that cause them to bleed – or what is known as gingivitis.
"When left untreated, over time, it can progress to periodontitis, which is a more severe form of gum disease, and with more serious consequences like tooth loss," cautioned Yap.
"Additionally, toothbushing helps to remove leftover food debris on our teeth. Without brushing, our oral bacteria feast on these food debris, especially those high in dietary sugars, releasing acids that dissolve the hard outer layer of our teeth and results in tooth decay over time."
When it comes to picking your teeth, toothpicks may indeed be useful for removing large chunks of food debris when correctly used, said Yap. But there are a couple of "buts".
"As toothpicks are sharp, they can puncture your gums when forcefully inserted in the wrong angulation. Furthermore, toothpicks may break and leave splinters in your gums, leading to possible infections."
That flattened straw tip and your fingernail may make short work of dislodging stuck food but they "may traumatise the soft tissues in our mouth when used carelessly", said Yap.
HOW CAN YOU STOP THE HABIT?
Yap suggested keeping this mental image in your mind: Food debris and bacteria clinging onto your teeth and gums, and destroying them as you sleep. "This is a powerful motivator for us to drag our tired selves to the bathroom to brush our teeth."
Gargling with mouthwash isn't going to cut it as you need the brushing to physically remove the plaque and food debris. "A quick 30 seconds of toothbrushing is still better than no brushing," said Yap. "It may not remove all the bacteria and debris but it can significantly reduce the quantity and its destructive effects as we sleep."
If picking your teeth is done more out of habit than necessity, stop it, especially if you use your fingernail. "Our fingernails are covered with bacteria and viruses, so I would strongly advise to avoid using uncleaned fingernails whenever possible," said Yap.
"Additionally, with the COVID-19 pandemic still far from over, we certainly do not want to insert our fingers into any oral cavity."
But if jammed food bits are causing you discomfort, it is more effective to use an interdental brush instead of toothpicks or straws. These small, straight brushes with conically shaped bristles come in different sizes to fit different gaps between your teeth, said Yap.
"Studies have shown that using an interdental brush is an effective and efficient way to remove food debris and bacteria between teeth."
Otherwise, try rinsing with water to remove the loose food debris first, she suggested. "If the food impaction is still causing discomfort, you may resort to the other options like toothpicks but use them carefully."