We all want the kind of bright, beautiful smile that sparkles in photos or from across the room. But a mouthful of white teeth is more than just cosmetic. Recent studies show that poor dental health may make you sick: The bacteria associated with unhealthy teeth and gums can travel to other parts of the body, contributing to a variety of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, ulcers, premature birth, and even some cancers.
Simple brushing, flossing, and rinsing habits can help keep your teeth healthy. But not all dental products are created equal. Most of the brightly colored, sugary-sweet options at your neighborhood drugstore contain synthetic detergents, abrasives, moisturizers, sweeteners, dyes, and preservatives. Their more natural counterparts work just as well–without all those unpronounceable additions. Here’s a guide to a healthy–and lasting–smile.
1. Switch to gentler toothpaste.
Synthetic ingredients in conventional toothpastes can hurt teeth and gums. The detergent sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), for instance, is drying and may irritate sensitive gums. Plus, research indicates that detergents like SLS may wear away the dentin, the hard surface under the enamel that protects the nerves and pulp of the tooth.
Fluoride is another controversial toothpaste ingredient. “Fluoride is actually a by-product of industrial waste,” notes Bill Wolfe, DDS, a holistic dentist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although fluoride plays an important role in cavity prevention–and is particularly crucial during childhood when teeth are developing–some studies have linked the overconsumption of fluoride to health issues, including a higher risk of fractures in older adults. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency allows municipalities to add 4 mg of fluoride per liter of drinking water, but even the American Dental Association (a longtime proponent of fluoride) says that people need just 0.7 to 1.2 mg per liter to prevent cavities. If you live in an area with heavily fluoridated drinking water, you might want to consider fluoride-free toothpastes like Tom’s of Maine Natural Antiplaque Toothpaste with Propolis & Myrrh, which relies on the antibacterial properties of honey and herbs to fight cavities. Fluoride-free Desert Essence Tea Tree Oil & Neem Toothpaste contains baking soda and plaque-fighting herbs neem and tea tree oil.
2. Floss daily.
No matter how frequently you brush, you can remove the bacterial plaque remaining on your teeth by flossing. Wrap a piece of dental floss into a “C” shape, then scrape both sides of each tooth to snare any hidden plaque. “Make sure you move the floss up and down each tooth, not back and forth,” says Jim Maxey, DDS, a natural dentist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For even more effective flossing, try Eco-Dent’s GentleFloss, which is impregnated with essential oils and antibacterial enzymes to help eliminate hidden bacteria.
3. Freshen up.
Most over-the-counter mouthwash brands only make your breath smell fresher and don’t eliminate the bacteria that cause bad breath. Plus, says Wolfe, “the main ingredient is alcohol, which can dehydrate the mouth and interfere with saliva production.” To kill renegade bacteria, look for an alcohol-free herbal mouthwash containing calendula, goldenseal, and echinacea such as the Natural Dentist Healthy Gums Daily Oral Rinse or Jason Healthy Mouth Naturally Antiseptic Mouthwash.
4. Weigh the cost of whiteners.
Available as strips, gels, pens and sticks, at-home tooth whiteners are a hot trend–and they can brighten your smile overnight. But this minor miracle may come at a price. Common complaints include tooth and gum sensitivity and pain; the hydrogen peroxide in these products also may seep into and damage the pulp of the tooth.
Instead, try the gradual–and healthier–whitening effects of Uncle Harry’s Tooth Whitener, which uses calcium carbonate to erase surface stains and lemon juice to naturally bleach underlying discolorations. Whitening toothpastes, such as Jason’s PowerSmile, include natural whiteners such as bamboo, calcium carbonate, and silica to polish and whiten without hydrogen peroxide or harsh abrasives.
Teeth naturally become darker as we age, but some foods and drinks speed up the process. In general, don’t smoke, and be extra vigilant about rinsing and brushing after consuming coffee, black tea, grape juice, red wine, and berries. Plaque retains stains, so keep teeth plaque free with frequent brushing. When that’s not an option, try chewing a stick of natural gum after a meal to stimulate saliva, a natural buffering agent that can prevent staining. At the very least, Wolfe recommends rinsing your mouth well with a bit of water after meals to wash away loose bits of food and potential stains.
Las Vegas, Nevada-based Kim Erickson is the author of Drop Dead Gorgeous (McGraw-Hill, 2002).
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