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Your smile is one of your best assets, so, of course, you want to keep it sparkling.
But even if you brush, use white strips, and visit your dentist twice a year, it may not be enough. Here are some factors that can wreak havoc on your teeth and gums, and put a serious damper on your smile.
1. Brushing at the wrong time
Although we’ve been taught to brush after every meal, depending on what you eat or drink, that’s not always the best advice. “After consuming high-acid food or drinks, like wine, coffee, citrus fruits, and soft drinks, rinse with water to neutralize the acids, but wait an hour before reaching for the toothpaste,” says Meinecke. “Brushing teeth immediately after drinking carbonated drinks and acidic foods can cause erosion.”
2. Sports drinks
In the last decade, sports beverages have become increasingly popular, but they aren’t great for your teeth. “Scientific research has found that the pH levels in many sports drinks could lead to tooth erosion due to their high concentration of acidic components, which could wear away at the tooth’s enamel,” says David F. Halpern, DMD, FAGD, president of the Academy of General Dentistry.
Additionally, these drinks are often high in sugars that act as “food” for acid-producing bacteria, which then sneak into the cracks and crevices in your teeth, causing cavities and tooth decay.
Smoking turns your teeth yellow, but it can be much more damaging than that. “Using any form of tobacco can harm your teeth and gums in a number of ways,” says Halpern. “It can cause throat, lung, and mouth cancer, and even death. Additionally, the tar from tobacco forms a sticky film on teeth, which harbors bacteria that promote acid production and create irritating toxins, both of which cause gum inflammation, tooth decay, and loss.”
Wine drinkers beware: Regular wine consumption can harm tooth enamel. According to Halpern, wine’s acidity can dissolve the tooth structure, and both red and white wine can increase dental staining. Still, you don’t have to give up your regular glass of vino to save your smile. “Enamel erosion develops when wine drinkers swish the wine, keeping it in constant contact with the enamel, so instead, take small sips and rinse with water when you’re done drinking,” advises Perle.
5. Diet pills
Even though they may seem like a quick way to trim your waist, diet pills can also be a fast track to gum disease and tooth decay. “Like many over-the-counter and prescription medications, diet pills decrease salivary flow, which causes dry mouth and puts you at risk for gum disease, tooth decay, cavities, and discomfort,” says Halpern. Bottom line: A balanced diet and exercise are the safest way to lose weight and protect your smile.
6. Teeth grinding
Teeth grinding, or bruxism, can affect your jaw, cause pain, and even change the appearance of your face. “People who have otherwise healthy teeth and gums can clench so often and so hard that over time, they wear away their tooth’s enamel, causing chipping and sensitivity,” says Halpern. Stress and anger can increase nighttime teeth grinding. “Finding ways to alleviate these feelings can help, but it’s also important to see your dentist, who can recommend solutions like a custom night guard,” advises Perle.
Contrary to what mom said, sugar won’t directly rot your teeth—but the acid produced when you eat sugar and carbohydrates can. “Naturally occurring bacteria in the mouth devour sugar, creating acids that attack tooth enamel, which can lead to decay and a host of other problems, including gingivitis and cavities,” says Halpern. The worst thing you can do is leave sugar lingering on your teeth and gums. Eating any amount of candy and brushing and flossing immediately is actually less damaging than not brushing after eating one piece before bedtime, says Halpern. If you can’t brush after a snack attack, eat cheese or yogurt, or chew sugarless gum to boost saliva flow and neutralize acids.
8. Soft drinks
Soft drinks are chock-full of sugar, which puts you at a risk for cavities, tooth decay, and gum infections, and dark colas can also stain your teeth, leaving you with a lackluster smile. Meinecke recommends drinking soda through a straw and rinsing with water or chewing sugar-free gum after consumption to neutralize the acids. She also recommends waiting at least an hour before brushing.
9. Citrus and acidic food
“Although lemons, grapefruits, and citrus juices don’t directly cause cavities, like soft drinks, they contain acids, which cause erosion of the tooth enamel, weakening the tooth and making it prone to decay,” says Meinecke. Waiting to brush, rinsing your mouth with water, or chewing sugar-free gum can help. In particular, consider xylitol, a natural sweetener found in plants and fruits that was FDA approved as a food additive in 1986. Found in sugar-free gum, mints, and toothpastes, xylitol can inhibit the cavity-causing oral bacteria. “Dentists will often recommend patients chew at least two pieces per day if they are at high risk for developing cavities,” explains Meinecke.
10. Not flossing
Although many of us are much more diligent about brushing than flossing, they are equally important. “Flossing every day is one of the best things you can do to take care of your teeth. It’s the single most important factor in preventing periodontal disease, which affects more than 50% of adults,” says Meinecke. Flossing helps remove plaque and debris that sticks to teeth and gums, and gives you a brighter smile by polishing the tooth’s surface; it even helps control bad breath.