Twice a day for 2 minutes is the mantra that most dentists and dental health professionals will subscribe to.
Why? Because this is the advice of the American Dental Association (ADA) a leading force within dental care within the USA.
However, has anybody really told you when you should brush?
I am going to presume that most people reading this will be thinking, once in the morning and once at night.
The ADA is not specific in their advice. They do not say that you should or should not brush at particular times of the day. What they are really more concerned about is that you brush the teeth at all. Some form of brushing is better than none!
In other parts of the world, the directions are a little more specific. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) advise brushing last thing at night, just before bed. But, what surprises many, is that rather than specifically stating the morning, they suggest at another point in the day.
A large number of us spend our days away from home, where our toothbrush and floss lives. Our lifestyle and habits suggests then that morning is the most appropriate ‘another point in the day’ for us to brush, before we leave the house for the day.
So, this brings us to the next big question that many ask.
Should I brush teeth before or after breakfast?
The simple answer to this is: either is fine, but before breakfast is probably best.
The debate of before or after
The before or after breakfast brushing debate has rolled on a long time and will likely continue to do so. Neither is really wholly right or wrong.
In a very unscientific poll, I asked a few friends and relatives when they brushed their teeth.
Of the 10 people I asked, 6 brushed after breakfast whilst 4 brushed before.
What was apparent was that it was influenced very much by someone’s routine and lifestyle.
A couple get up first thing, head straight to the bathroom, brush and wash and head straight out the door to work, without eating breakfast at home.
Another couple would get up, starting their day with a bathroom routine that included brushing, before heading to the kitchen for breakfast and then off out to work for the day.
The remaining 6 had slightly different routines from getting straight up and having breakfast, to washing and then having breakfast, but they all then would brush their teeth at some point after breakfast.
Their routine influenced how long after breakfast they brushed – but 4 of the 6 did so within 20 minutes of eating. Basically, they were in a rush, so, up, wash, breakfast, teeth clean and go.
The remaining 2, who brushed post breakfast had a more relaxed routine and would brush about an hour or so after breakfast.
What was pleasing to know is that all did actually brush their teeth.
Perhaps surprisingly, statistics show that 3 out of 4 millennials, only brush their teeth once a day.
A few of those I asked about their brushing habits did then ask, so when should you brush your teeth, before or after breakfast? A couple were surprised to hear what the answer was.
Arguments for and against
So, just what are the arguments for and against brushing your teeth before and after breakfast?
Arguments for brushing before breakfast
At night, whether you are deep in sleep or wide awake counting sheep, despite having cleaned your teeth before bed, plaque begins to build.
Plaque will grow at any time of the day or night, thanks to the ideal environment that exists within the mouth.
Unfortunately, at night time we have less saliva, and these lower levels of saliva mean that the plaque is able to grow more quickly.
The amount of plaque produced varies from person to person, but for any of us, after 8 hours or so asleep your teeth and gums will have a nice plaque coating.
If you brush before breakfast, the bristles of the toothbrush sweep away this build-up, meaning that the sugars released from the foods you then eat can’t be used by the plaque bacteria quite so easily.
If you leave brushing until after breakfast, the plaque uses the sugars you eat, as their fuel. The bacteria form acid as a waste product of this, and it is this acid that attacks and breaks down your tooth’s enamel. The longer the time between eating and brushing post breakfast, the longer the acid is attacking the tooth surface.
What you also need to consider is your diet.
The conditions of your mouth will change depending on what you have for breakfast.
There is a scale for measuring how acidic or alkaline something is, this is called the pH scale.
Everything we eat, whether it is as sugary cereals or fruit juices like orange juice, will affect our natural pH levels, in those cases making the mouth more acidic.
This acidity is not ideal for teeth and over time can weaken the enamel, the outer coating to your teeth.
Brushing after breakfast when the mouth is potentially at the most acidic can potentially mean you are brushing away weakened enamel, allowing the acid to go even deeper into the teeth.
If you brush before breakfast, the brushing will have not only reduced the potential impact of the acids but the toothpaste you are using when brushing will also leave behind an extra protective layer of fluoride, which will help to resist the attack brought about by the food and drink we consume at breakfast.
Arguments for brushing after breakfast
The most common reason people brush after breakfast is that they wish to remove any food and taste left behind in the mouth from eating. They want to go about their morning at least with fresh breath and clean teeth.
This was the exact reason 6 out of the 10 people I spoke to gave for brushing after breakfast.
The fresher, often minty clean taste left by a toothpaste was more desirable to them, than the residual taste of toast, cereal or whatever else they consume for breakfast.
I don’t believe it is wrong to want this fresh taste in the mouth, but the real reason we clean our teeth is being forgotten.
We are really cleaning the teeth to remove plaque.
What dentists say
Here are a few quotes from dentists and dental groups on the question of brushing before and after breakfast.
If you’ve eaten an acidic food or drink, avoid brushing your teeth right away. These acids weaken tooth enamel, and brushing too soon can remove enamel. If you know you’re going to eat or drink something acidic, brush your teeth beforehand. The Mayo Clinic
Do it as soon as you wake up. In general, you should avoid brushing directly after a meal. Dentist Sharon Albright
You might actually be better at preventing cavities if you brush before you have breakfast because then you’ll be removing as much bacteria as possible instead of “feeding” them. Coburg Dental Group
The absolute best times to brush your teeth are immediately after breakfast and immediately before bedtime. But if you’ve eaten something acidic, you’ll want to wait a full 30 minutes before you start brushing. Dr Saeid Badie
From a scientific point of view I am convinced that brushing for at least two minutes before breakfast is best and I advise all my patients to brush before breakfast with a fluoride toothpaste but I also tell all my patients to consider washing their mouth with water only after breakfast to get rid of the food debris left behind so that it does not stay on the teeth all day. Dr Munther Sulieman
Generally, brushing your teeth before breakfast tends to be more beneficial for your teeth. Dr Walter McGinn
As you can see the majority would suggest brushing before, rather than after breakfast.
My own research confirms that this tends to be the wider advice and stance taken by professionals. However, there is certainly a disparity between the recommendations made. By no means are all dentists suggesting before.
Should you brush your teeth after eating?
Whilst breakfast is an important meal in the day, there are of course other times you may eat, notably lunch and dinner time.
A commonly asked question is should you brush your teeth after those meals or indeed when you have eaten something else throughout the day.
The simple answer is no.
However, the reasoning and theory behind this answer is a little more complex, so I encourage you to read on.
The reasoning behind not brushing straight after eating is for all intents and purposes the same as why many dental professionals do not suggest brushing straight after breakfast.
Although you may not have eaten an unhealthy meal, foods contain sugars and acids, some substantially more than others. “Sugars” is not only the obvious refined sugar we add to food. Carbohydrates like potatoes are also broken down into sugars which can be eaten by the bacteria in our mouths.
As dentist Michael Sapiro explains ‘There is nothing wrong with brushing your teeth after eating, but it will depend on what you have eaten…Brushing after taking sugary or acidic snacks or drinks abrades your tooth structure. A soft enamel due to acids will wear out easily when brushing….It is advisable you wait for about 30 minutes or so to brush your teeth’.
Another factor to consider is whether you actually need to brush your teeth. What are your reasons for thinking about brushing after a meal.
Having researched how long and how often you should brush your teeth the recommendations are for 2 minutes twice a day.
Therefore, if you are brushing first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but considering whether to brush after lunch or dinner, is it necessary?
Could you be at risk of brushing your teeth too much?
One of the common reasons I have heard for wanting to brush after a meal is that it is to refresh the mouth and to get rid of strong tastes.
Perhaps the following suggestions offered by the dental wellness group are worth considering:
- Rinse your mouth with water.
- Rinse your mouth with some antibacterial mouthwash. Select a mouthwash that does not contain any alcohol. It will balance the pH level of your mouth and prevent plaque from building up.
- Chew sugar-free bubble gum (one that contains xylitol), since chewing helps saliva production. Saliva can neutralize acids faster.
- Eat some cheese. It can lower the pH level of bacterial plaque and help the teeth to rebuild the minerals within the enamel.
By following the above, you may no longer need or want to brush after the meal, or could indeed brush a little sooner as you have taken action to reduce the acids in the mouth.
Interestingly in Korea, residents are encouraged to brush 3 times a day for 3 minutes. Dentists and the Korean Dental Association call it the 3-3-3 approach (3 times a day for 3 minutes within 3 minutes of eating).
A 2017 study concluded that Korean adults who are encouraged to brush three times a day for at least three minutes had lower incidences of periodontal disease than Americans and Australians who are taught to brush twice a day.
Despite the increased risk of damage to teeth by brushing immediately after eating, more important is regular brushing, so perhaps this is why such advice is given?
Mouthwash before or after brushing
A quick note about mouthwash, because many get it wrong.
It is not advisable to rinse your mouth with mouthwash or any other oral rinse before or after brushing.
Using mouthwash before brushing is a waste as the act of brushing the teeth will undo any good by the mouthwash (in most instances).
Using mouthwash after brushing will rinse away the toothpaste residue that protects the teeth.
Unless expressly advised by your dentist, you should not rinse after brushing.
Mouthwash is best used at other times in the day, ideally when a toothbrush is not to hand. Maybe after lunch or a snack.
You can learn more about mouthwash, in our guide to the best mouthwash.
The short answer to the question of should you brush teeth before or after breakfast, is before.
However, as you will have seen from the dentist’s comments there is some disparity between suggestions on when you should brush your teeth.
Whilst more appear to side with before breakfast, than after, there appears to be a realization and suggestion that it is about finding what works for you.
Ultimately dentists and medical professionals would rather you focus your efforts on brushing your teeth correctly, twice a day for 2 minutes than brushing at the right times, be that straight after a meal or not.
As a nation we do not brush frequently enough or with the correct technique, so addressing this is of bigger importance to oral health than the specific times.
Of course, if you can adapt your routine to brush before breakfast and not straight after a meal, then long term this will be beneficial for you.
If you must or desire to brush post breakfast or other meals, ensure you leave at least 30 minutes between eating and brushing for the natural pH balance of the mouth to return.
If you want the fresher taste in the mouth after eating, but are brushing before eating, why not consider rinsing the mouth with water or maybe even some mouthwash after eating to give that fresher feeling.
I believe dentist Mark Machbanks sums it up nicely:
“The bottom line is that your mouth needs to stay clean, fresh, and plaque-free. So it’s wise to discuss your morning routine with your dentist and decide what will be the best option for your optimum oral health.”