Should You Brush Your Teeth Before or After Breakfast?
Each and every morning, you (hopefully) set aside two minutes to sleepily give your teeth a thorough scrubbing. But exactly when in the a.m. this cleansing ritual occurs varies from person to person. In fact, a 2014 survey of Illinois residents found that 62 percent of respondents brushed their teeth as soon as they woke up, while the remainder did so after breakfast.
But does the timing of your morning scrub actually matter? Here, dentists break down whether you should brush teeth before or after breakfast — and how to get those pearly whites sparkling clean regardless of when you brush.
The Importance of Brushing Teeth In the Morning
Besides ridding your mouth of gnarly morning breath, cleaning your chompers in the morning plays a crucial role in maintaining oral health, and it all comes down to the bacteria lingering in your mouth while you snooze. "As we're sleeping, bacteria has the tendency to settle — we don't have [as much] saliva moving around our mouth to prevent this bacteria from settling," says Amber Bonnaig, D.D.S., the dental director of Georgia for DentaQuest, a health care company that provides dental benefits. "And we know that bacteria is what's going to cause tooth decay and or gum disease." Brushing your pearly whites in the morning helps break up all the bacteria that's been growing overnight and starts your teeth off with a clean slate for the day, says Bonnaig.
And this bacteria can have serious effects if not promptly removed once you wake up. When bacteria sits on teeth for too long, it can form plaque — a sticky, white film that produces acids after you eat or drink, according to the Cleveland Clinic. These acids can destroy tooth enamel (the hard, protective outermost layer of teeth), cause cavities, lead to gingivitis (a type of gum disease involving red, swollen gums that may bleed). Eventually, plaque can harden and turn into tartar, which can't be removed with a toothbrush and requires a professional oral cleaning to eliminate. What's more, it can also eventually cause periodontal disease — a serious infection that damages the gums and can destroy the bone that supports your teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic. Yikes. (Wait, should you be getting a deep teeth cleaning dental procedure?)
What's more, using a toothpaste designed to protect your teeth and help strengthen the enamel, such as one with fluoride, in the a.m. can help fend off damage from all the acidic foods you'll eat throughout the day, says Lauren Becker, D.D.S., P.C., a general and cosmetic dentist in New York City. "Brushing your teeth in the morning gives you that protective barrier to start your day and give you some protection from all of the different exposures that our teeth [experience] as we eat and drink," adds Bonnaig.
So, Should You Brush Your Teeth Before or After Breakfast?
In general, both Bonnaig and Becker recommend brushing your teeth before eating breakfast to remove any built-up bacteria before it develops into harmful plaque (which, believe it or not, can actually happen overnight) and to protect your pearly whites from future damage caused by your morning meal. "We encounter a lot of highly acidic foods throughout the day, whether it be fruit, juice, bread, coffee, things of that sort, that can weaken the enamel," says Bonnaig, and brushing your teeth first thing can reduce the odds of your morning meal causing harm, she explains.
More significantly, brushing your teeth immediately after breakfast can actually do more harm than good. Those acidic foods can weaken the enamel for a short period of time, and brushing too soon after noshing on them — while your enamel is still in a delicate state — can cause damage, says Bonnaig. "Acid will wear the enamel down and thin it out, so it can increase sensitivity [and] it increases the likelihood of cavities occurring and of fracture or breakdown [of the tooth]," adds Becker. "Acid is no bueno in the oral cavity department." That's why both experts advise waiting 30 to 60 minutes after eating to scrub your chompers if you have to brush after breakfast. (Related: Why You Should Remineralize Your Teeth — and Exactly How to Do It, According to Dentists)
If you typically opt to brush after finishing your morning cup of Joe to help prevent enamel staining, Bonnaig suggests doubling your cleansing routine. "Honestly, there's never been any link to anything harmful, as far as brushing before and after [eating or drinking]," she explains. "So if you were to brush prior to eating and then let's say you have some coffee that you're worried about the enamel staining, then you can wait that 30 minutes to an hour and come back and brush the teeth." Brush your teeth sooner than that recommended wait period, and you might push the color into the weakened enamel — setting, not preventing, a tooth stain, according to Beavers Dentistry, a dental clinic in Cary, North Carolina. (These whitening toothpastes will help your smile truly sparkle.)
That said, you may not be too keen on tasting the mint of your toothpaste while sipping on a hazelnut latte or munching on an orange. To combat those unappealing flavor combos and whisk away the harmful built-up bacteria, consider brushing your teeth immediately after rolling out of bed, says Bonnaig, who personally uses this tactic. "I feel like that gives myself enough time to get that flavor of the toothpaste to settle down prior to getting that first meal," she says.
Tips for Brushing Your Teeth Properly
Regardless of whether you choose to brush teeth before or after breakfast, it's important to scrub them properly. To give your pearly whites a good cleaning — and keep sensitivity and enamel damage at bay — steal Bonnaig and Becker's key tips.
Choose the Right Toothpaste
To keep your pearly whites in tip-top shape, choose a toothpaste that contains fluoride, which helps strengthen enamel, and has a neutral to basic pH, as acidic products can contribute to the breakdown of enamel, says Becker. Talk with your doctor to find a toothpaste with those features or try Becker's picks, including CariFree CTx4 Gel (Buy It, $17, amazon.com), Sensodyne Pronamel (Buy It, $19, amazon.com), Colgate Total in Clean Mint (Buy It, $6, amazon.com), or Colgate PreviDent 5000 (a prescription toothpaste that's recommended to strengthen sensitive teeth and enamel and reverse early root cavities). "[These] are all the most mildly abrasive and fluoride-containing toothpastes that work best to protect your teeth," she says.
Stick with a Professional-Grade Electric Toothbrush
While the battery-powered, budget-friendly toothbrushes you can pick up at the drugstore are convenient, they're not necessarily the best for your chompers, says Becker. "A lot of the popular toothbrushes are just glorified vibrators," she says. "...People use them like regular toothbrushes and scrub with them, which causes recession and breakdown of gum tissue."
Professional-grade brushes, on the other hand, have bristles that move independently from the toothbrush itself so you don't have to scrub, she explains. For example, the Philips Sonicare 7500 ExpertClean toothbrush (Buy It, $170, amazon.com) uses sonic vibration to force fluid between teeth, helping to break up plaque, while the Oral-B Pro 1000 toothbrush (Buy It, $40, amazon.com) cleans teeth with bristles that rotate, explains Becker. Many professional electric toothbrushes can also notify you if you're using too much pressure and come with a built-in, two-minute timer, Daniel Naysan, D.D.S., a Beverly Hills-based dentist and Pronamel consultant, previously told Shape. So if you consider yourself to be an aggressive brusher or you struggle to scrub the full two minutes, scope out a toothbrush with those features. (Related: The 8 Best Electric Toothbrushes, According to Dentists and Dental Hygienists)
If you're Team Manual Toothbrush, look for a brush that has multi-level bristles or angled bristles, which remove plaque better than brushes with flat-trimmed bristles, according to the American Dental Association. And with both manual and electric options, choose a toothbrush with a head that's a fit for your mouth, says Bonnaig. For folks with small mouths, a toothbrush with a smaller head is your best bet, as they allow you to reach all areas of the mouth and the bristles can get into all the grooves and pits of smaller teeth, she explains. Not sure which brush size is right for you? Book an appointment with your dentist to get their personalized recommendations.
Opt for a Soft-Bristle Toothbrush
You might think the stiffer the bristle, the cleaner your teeth will get, but this style can cause lasting damage, says Bonnaig. "It's mind-boggling that you can still buy a hard-bristled toothbrush in stores because brushing too hard can cause gum damage, and it can cause some root exposure and some recession [of the gums]," she explains. To protect your gums, stick with toothbrushes labeled as soft-bristled, she says.
Don't Move the Brush Back and Forth
Practically every toothpaste commercial features someone holding their toothbrush parallel with their teeth and rapidly scrubbing it back and forth on their chompers. But IRL, you'll want to tilt the toothbrush up or down at a 45-degree angle so it can loosen any plaque that's built-up along the gum line, says Becker. "With an electric brush, you want to gently rotate around each tooth, and with a [regular] toothbrush you want to wiggle it along the gum line at each tooth and then swish anything down," she explains.
Brush All Sides of the Teeth
It's easy to cleanse the outside portion of your teeth and call it a day, but Bonnaig says it's important to focus your efforts on all three sides of the teeth. "[Brush] the outside, chewing surfaces, and the tongue side, which I personally see a lot of the time is an area that is missed," she says. "Because the tongue can lay on the back of those lower anterior teeth, you'll see a lot of bacteria, plaque, and eventually even calculus [aka tartar] that kind of sets up there."
Set a Timer
It may seem like an eternity, but it's important to brush your chompers for two minutes every single time, whether you choose to brush your teeth before or after breakfast. "If you're brushing for the right amount of time, the chances are you're getting all those surfaces [the outside, chewing surfaces, and tongue side] taken care of," says Bonnaig.
Replace Toothbrush Heads Often
It's typically recommended to replace your toothbrush head every three months, but if you're an aggressive brusher, it may not last that long, says Bonnaig. Instead, she suggests swapping it out as soon as you start to see the bristles wearing out or spreading. "As soon as the bristles spread out, they're not going to have the ability to get into those cracks and pits and grooves, especially on those smaller teeth," she explains. (Next up: TikTokers Are Using Magic Erasers to Whiten Their Teeth — But Is There Any Way That's Safe?)