Dental cleanings involve removing plaque (soft, sticky, bacteria-infested film) and tartar (calculus) deposits that have built up on the teeth over time. Your teeth are continually bathed in saliva, which contains calcium and other substances that help strengthen and protect the teeth. While this is a good thing, it also means that the plaque on your teeth can become calcified. As a result, we tend to get a build-up of calcium deposits on the teeth. This calcification is calculus, or tartar. It is a chalky substance, like lime scale in a pipe or kettle. Usually it is tooth colored and can easily be mistaken as part of the teeth, but it can also be brown or black.
If calculus accumulates on the teeth, it will, unfortunately, provide the right conditions for bacteria to thrive next to the gums. The purpose of cleaning and polishing is basically to leave the surfaces of the teeth clean and smooth so that bacteria are unable to stick to them and you have a better chance of keeping the teeth clean during your regular home care.
The professional cleaning of teeth is sometimes referred to as prophylaxis (or “prophy” for short). It’s a Greek word which means “to prevent beforehand” – in this case, it helps prevent gum disease. At Brighton Healthy Smiles, our dentists recommend that professional cleanings be done every 6 months. For some people, more frequent cleaning is recommended, especially if gum disease is already present.
How are dental cleanings done?
Your Brighton Healthy Smiles dental hygienist uses specialized instruments to gently remove these deposits without harming the teeth. The instruments that may be used during your cleaning, and what they feel like, are described below.
An ultrasonic instrument uses tickling vibrations to knock larger pieces of tartar loose. It also sprays a cooling mist of water while it works to wash away debris and keep the area at a proper temperature. The device typically emits a humming or high pitched whistling sound. This may seem louder than it actually is because the sound may get amplified inside your head, just like when you put an electric toothbrush into your mouth.
The ultrasonic instrument tips are curved and rounded and are always kept in motion around the teeth. They are by no means sharp, since their purpose is to knock tartar loose and not to cut into the teeth. It is best to inform your hygienist if the sensations are too strong or ticklish so that they can adjust the setting appropriately on the device or modify the pressure applied.
Larger deposits that have hardened can take more time to remove, so your initial cleaning may take longer than future cleanings. Imagine not cleaning a house for six months versus cleaning it every week. The six-month job is going to take longer than doing smaller weekly jobs.
Fine hand instruments (scalers and curettes) remove smaller deposits and smooth the tooth surfaces. These tools are curved and shaped to match the curves of the teeth. They allow smaller deposits to be removed by carefully scraping them off with a gentle to moderate amount of pressure. Polishing is done using a slow-speed hand piece with a soft rubber cup that spins on the end. Polishing paste – a special gritty toothpaste-like material – is scooped up like ice cream into the cup and spun around on the teeth to make them shiny and smooth.
Is a dental cleaning painful?
Most of our patients find that cleanings are painless, and find that the sensations described above – tickling vibrations, the cooling mist of water, and the feeling of pressure during “scraping” – do not cause discomfort. A lot of people even report that they enjoy cleanings and the lovely smooth feel of their teeth afterwards!
Be sure to let your hygienist know if you find things are getting too uncomfortable for your liking. They can recommend various options to make the cleaning more enjoyable.
Painful cleaning experiences can be caused by a number of things: a rough hygienist, exposed dentin (not dangerous, but can make cleanings unpleasant), or sore gum tissues.
In case you may have had painful cleaning experiences in the past, switching to a gentle hygienist can often make the difference. Desensitizers are available for teeth with exposed dentin. Daily flossing can decrease, if not eliminate, sore gum tissues. Anesthetic is also an option. Whereas a topical gel will relieve the gums, a local anesthetic will help both the teeth and gums.