Over the years, people have tried all sorts of ways to clean their toothbrushes. Some run it through the dishwasher. Others soak the head in mouthwash or effervescent denture cleaner. Others freeze it, boil it or invest in a pricey ultraviolet toothbrush sanitizer.
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“The bottom line is that none of that is necessary,” says dentist Karyn Kahn, DDS. “I suggest just rinsing it in good, hot water.”
The reason is that you have a natural flora of bacteria living in your mouth that’s necessary for a healthy environment and it’s not necessary to try to completely remove these from your toothbrush. Instead of trying to sterilize your toothbrush, make a habit of replacing it regularly.
In its recommendation about toothbrush care, the American Dental Association (ADA) cites studies that have found no evidence of negative oral health effects from normal bacteria on a toothbrush.
“If you don’t have that bacteria, that’s when opportunist microorganisms like yeast and fungi take over,” says Dr. Kahn. “You want a certain amount of natural bacteria in your mouth, just not around the teeth or gum tissue.”
Dr. Kahn shares four tips for keeping a clean and effective toothbrush:
1. Use your eyes to protect your teeth
Your toothbrush should look clean and straight. Be on the lookout for discoloration, buildup or any matted bristles. If you see any of this, it’s time to change the toothbrush.
If you see any chunks of toothpaste or food on your toothbrush, be sure to rinse it well to dislodge them.
2. When in doubt, throw it out
The suggestions on when to replace a toothbrush vary according to the manufacturer.
“Keep it easy and follow the ADA guidelines,” says Dr. Kahn. “Replace it every three to four months. If you see the bristles are frayed, replace it sooner.”
Pitching your toothbrush is crucial if you’re sick or have a fungal, yeast or viral infection in your mouth. Replace your brush at the beginning of treatment and again at the end.
The bacteria that live on a toothbrush after you use it are considered anaerobic — meaning that they will die in the presence of oxygen. So, if you let your toothbrush air dry, it will take care of most bacteria.
“However, after you are sick, my general recommendation is to replace your toothbrush,” she says. “It’s an easy fix to make sure lingering bacteria doesn’t lead to reinfection or get passed on to family members. This makes a lot more sense than trying to clean your toothbrush by boiling it or by using hydrogen peroxide or vinegar.”
3. Never share a toothbrush
Your mouth needs a healthy flora of its own bacteria, but it’s not good to introduce bacteria from someone else.
“You should never share a toothbrush, especially with your children, since that’s when they are acquiring their normal flora,” says Dr. Kahn.
Also avoid storing multiple brushes, such as those of family members, in the same holder or in a drawer together. It’s best if they do not contact each other.
4. Give it lots of fresh air
Remember to store your toothbrush in an open-air holder, not in a dirty cup, drawer or travel case. The ADA also recommends not routinely covering your toothbrush, either, for the risk of unwanted bacteria. Storing your toothbrush in those places can promote the growth of mold or bacteria that isn’t natural to your mouth, leading to mouth diseases like gingivitis.
If you have any questions about the effectiveness of your toothbrush, a good rule of thumb is to get a new one. Some experts recommend having two toothbrushes and alternating while one dries.