Your smile is one of the first things people notice about you. In fact, the Academy of General Dentistry reports that 40 percent of survey respondents notice a smile first in people they work with, and 96 percent believe that a smile is important to a person's appearance. But many of us take ours for granted -- thinking that no matter what we do, our smile will always be there in its gleaming brilliance. Not true. There are many bad habits that could be slowly spoiling our teeth and gums -- the key components of a healthy grin.
1. Brushing too hard
Using a firm-bristled toothbrush and too much pressure can permanently wear away protective enamel (triggering tooth sensitivity and cavities) and cause receding gums, says Christine Dumas, D.D.S., assistant clinical professor of dentistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Instead, use a soft brush and gentle, circular scrubbing motions for two minutes at least twice a day. When buying a toothbrush, consider that compact heads move most easily around small mouths and long, flexible handles are better than short, stiff ones for reaching back molars. Good brushes, available at drugstores: The redesigned Reach Interdental Toothbrush ($2.50), Mentadent ProCare ($3) and Colgate Navigator ($3.29).
2. The wrong toothpaste
Some toothpastes, especially those designated "tartar control," are too abrasive, says Lana Rozenberg, D.D.S., director of New York City's Rozenberg Dental Day Spa. "Anything that feels gritty can erode enamel and cause receding gums." Fluoride is the only ingredient you need, she adds. Dentist-recommended toothpastes (at drugstores) include Mentadent ($3.29), Tom's of Maine Natural Toothpaste ($4) and Sensodyne Fresh Mint ($4.39) for sensitive teeth.
3. Forgoing floss
"It takes 24 hours for bacteria on your teeth to develop into plaque -- the sticky coating that leads to cavities and gum disease," says Richard H. Price, D.M.D., a dentist in private practice in Newton, Mass., and an adviser to the American Dental Association. Flossing once a day is essential for removing plaque. Good flosses, available at drugstores, include Oral-B SATINfloss ($3), Glide ($3) and Johnson & Johnson's new Reach Whitening Floss or Tape ($3.50), which is coated with silica, the compound used in whitening toothpaste.
4. Drinking lots of soda
Carbonated sodas -- both diet and regular -- contain phosphoric acid, which can erode teeth over a period of time. "If you have to drink soda, use a straw to minimize contact with your teeth -- and brush afterward," Dumas says.
5. Foods that stain
Anything that leaves a stain in a cup or on a plate (read: coffee, tea, colas, marinara sauce, soy sauce, red wine) will give teeth a dull, yellowish color over time, Rozenberg says. (Tooth enamel is like a sponge.) Ask your dentist about laser whitening, bleaching or Prophy Power, a new in-office procedure in which sodium bicarbonate (a gentle whitening agent) mixes with a powerful jet of water to lift stains without removing enamel.
If you want to use a whitening toothpaste, consider that they can brighten teeth a few shades, but they tend to be harsh on the enamel, says Rozenberg, which is why she recommends switching back to regular fluoride toothpaste after two weeks. Good bets: The new Colgate Total Plus Whitening ($3, at drugstores) and Supersmile Whitening Toothpaste ($11, supersmile.com). Rozenberg also suggests Crest White Strips ($44 for a two-week supply, www.whitestrips.com). These over-the-counter, Band-Aid-like strips may help lighten teeth up to four shades. Rembrandt also just launched the Superior Bleaching System, a two-week over-the-counter whitening kit ($33, rembrandt.com).
6. Frequent snacking
Every time you eat something, especially if it's a sugary or starchy food, the bacteria that normally live in your mouth create acids to break down the food. But these acids can also attack teeth, leading to decay, says Barbara J. Steinberg, D.D.S., professor of surgery and medicine at MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Eating raw, firm fruits and vegetables (like apples and carrots) with and after meals can help. (Many dental experts consider such foods to be nature's toothbrushes because of their detergent-like effect on plaque.)
Chewing sugarless gum after eating can also help prevent cavities by increasing saliva flow, which helps wash away cavity-causing bacteria. Look for gum sweetened with Xylitol (like Arm & Hammer Dental Care Gum, $1.49, and Aquafresh Dental Gum, $2; both at drugstores). Researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found gum containing the natural sweetener temporarily inhibited bacterial growth which leads to decay.
7. Using teeth as tools
Ripping open potato-chip bags and loosening knots with your teeth can lead to cracks and breaks and damage fillings and existing dental work. "You're just asking for big dental bills if you use your teeth as tools," warns Dumas. Also risky: Chewing ice cubes, frozen candy bars or hard candies.
8. Neglecting problems
Bleeding gums and chronic bad breath are hallmarks of gum disease. To fight bad breath, drink enough water to keep your mouth moist (water and saliva help control bacteria) and remove excess bacteria with a tongue scraper. Try an OraFresh Tongue Cleaner ($4, 800-749-4553) and Listerine's new Essential Care Toothpaste ($4, at drugstores), which has been shown in manufacturer-sponsored clinical trials to help reduce gum disease. To prevent bleeding gums, brush and floss daily. If your symptoms persistent longer than a few days, consult your dentist.
9. Avoiding the dentist
You're probably familiar with the advice that you should schedule twice-yearly cleanings -- but that's actually an arbitrary recommendation. We now know that some people may actually need to see a dentist every three months to keep gum disease at bay.
10. Ignoring your lips
No matter how great your dental health, your smile still won't shine if it's framed by dry, cracked lips. Lip skin, which is thinner than other skin on the body, is prone to moisture loss, environmental damage and changes due to aging. Using a moisturizing balm daily will help keep lips soft and smooth. Pamper yours daily with Clinique Superbalm Lip Treatment ($10, at department stores) or Avon Anew Retinol Lip Treatment ($10, 800-FOR-AVON).
Though brushing, flossing and visiting the dentist regularly are the best ways to maintain a great smile, electric tools can at least make it a little easier -- and may even help you do a better job.
Electric Toothbrushes: "These are great because they mimic the correct brushing form -- circular strokes," says Lana Rozenberg, D.D.S., director of the Rozenberg Dental Day Spa in New York City. Because they do the hard part for you (and do it correctly), electric toothbrushes may help you remove more plaque than manual brushes. A 1997 study published in the Journal of Clinical Dentistry showed that electric toothbrushes improved periodontal health in adults with gum problems. Our favorites: Sonicare Sonic Toothbrush (right, $80; www.sonicare.com) and the Braun Oral-B 3D Excel ($80, 800-44-ORAL-B).
Water Picks: Otherwise known as oral irrigators, these handy tools allow you to shoot a jet of water to specific areas in the mouth, helping to thoroughly rinse and remove debris. Best bets: Water Pik Personal Oral Irrigator ($42, 800-525-2774) and the Hydro Floss magnetic oral irrigator ($130, www.hydrofloss.com).