For some people, keeping their teeth clean is something of an obsession. "I've seen people who brush up to 20 times a day," says Dr. Sally Cram, a periodontist in Washington, D.C. "But good dental health is not about how hard and how often you brush. It's about how you do it." Dr. Cram recommends always using a soft bristle brush with many bristles. Thorough brushing (2 minutes per session) twice a day, with flossing once a day, will do the job.
"I have a patient who once said to me, 'You can't be too rich, too thin or have teeth that are too white,' " says Dr. Alice G. Boghosian, of Niles, Illinois. "But the patient is wrong." She explains that while bleaching certainly can improve a person's smile, too much bleaching can look bizarre. "There's a good rule to follow: Your teeth should not be whiter than the whites of your eyes," she says. If a bleaching product's instructions recommend touch-ups only every six months or every year, follow those instructions, she says. Over-bleaching also can cause tooth and gum sensitivity, which is reversible once you stop using the product.
Although not a habit per se, tongue piercing is just not a good idea, and often leads to damaging habits over time. Risks include contracting hepatitis (A, B, C, D or E); infection; profuse bleeding; swallowing or inhaling the stud; and cracking of the teeth. "If your tongue becomes infected, it can swell up and obstruct your breathing," warns Dr. Boghosian. "Even if the piercing goes OK, there is a tendency to click it against the teeth, causing the teeth to crack." If you decide to remove the stud for good, the hole won't necessarily close. Similar to ear piercing, the site's ability to heal depends on how long you've had the piercing and how large the stud is. "My recommendation on tongue piercing, " says Dr. Boghosian, "is don't do it."
This common habit often goes undetected because people don't realize they do it, or they do it in their sleep. It can lead to bone loss, gum recession and shifting and/or cracked teeth. Warning signs of clenching or grinding include pain in your jaw joints, difficulty opening and closing your mouth, headaches and even the inability to close your mouth. Solutions include a custom-made mouth guard from your dentist or even orthodontic work. "Clenching and grinding can sometimes be due to an incorrect bite," says Dr. Cram.
Dr. Boghosian says she has been taken aback by patients who use tools at home to remove calculus (the result of plaque that hardens and becomes mineralized to the teeth). "They're doing this to avoid dental visits," the dental expert explains. "They get their hands on dental tools, but they don't know how to use them properly, so they end up actually whittling their teeth away. One of my patients broke off her tooth doing this." Dr. Boghosian's message: Brushing and flossing will work just fine to maintain your teeth if you keep up with regular dentist visits.