With so many exotic diseases floating around these days, it’s only natural to wonder if your toothbrush is harboring bacteria. Maria Lopez Howell, a dentist and spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, comes clean.
Once a toothbrush turns furry, it’s less effective at removing plaque.
Common sense suggests when a toothbrush starts to look frayed and worn, it is time to invest in a new one. But, says Dr. Howell, a clinical professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Dental School, that may be too late. “Don’t wait until your toothbrush is furry to toss it out,” she says. As bristles wear down, they lose their effectiveness, and won’t scrape off plaque and calculus from the teeth and gum line easily.
Dr. Howell recommends replacing the brush every three to four months as a guideline. “I like to mark my new brushes with a date,” she says. On the flip side, if your brush isn’t looking used in four months, you may not be brushing long enough. Two minutes is the recommended time for a thorough cleaning and for fluoride uptake by enamel. Children, who seem to abuse these oral tools, may need their brushes changed more frequently.
Even an old fuzzy toothbrush won’t be a nesting ground for infectious bugs. Studies from the ADA haven’t shown evidence to support that a toothbrush can harbor harmful germs and reinfect a person, even after he or she has suffered a severe cold or flu. According to ADA studies, a toothbrush can carry germs from the moment it comes out of the package. But, says Dr. Howell, “Bacteria is a part of our lives,” and we have natural mechanisms to fight them, including enzymes in our mouths.
To Disinfect or Not to Disinfect
Some people heat a brush every now and then to kill lingering germs. But boiling water can destroy the bristles, as will putting a toothbrush in the microwave or dishwasher.
Boiling a brush is a no-no.
“People think that something hot will make something cleaner, but in this case, nice straight bristles will be most effective in cleaning the teeth and gums, not warped ones,” she says. As long as you rinse the toothpaste off and let the brush air dry, it will be clean. “Don’t cover it with a cap, which can maintain a moist environment and potentially breed bacteria, until it’s bone dry.” And don’t bother with products that claim to kill germs on your brush. No toothbrush-cleaning product has been shown to be fully sterilizing, according to the ADA.
The Right Fit
Dr. Howell jokes that the toothbrush area of the drugstore has been called the “aisle of confusion” among some of her fellow dental professionals. Ultimately, a good new toothbrush has the ADA seal of approval, it is soft, and it fits your preference. “Electric or with lines that show that it’s time to change your brush—it doesn’t matter, as long as you feel comfortable enough to brush properly with it,” says Dr. Howell.
Semiannual checkups with your dentist will confirm if you’re brushing properly. And often will provide you with two of the four toothbrushes you should be using each year, free.
—Heidi Mitchell WSJ