How Often Should You Really Brush Your Teeth?

brush your teeth

We’ve all been told since we were kids to brush our teeth every day: once when we get up in the morning and once before bed at night. The method of how we brush our teeth, the type of brush that exists, and how many times it’s acceptable to do so actually has a long, storied history dating back thousands of years.

Today, we know that brushing our teeth is essential to everything in oral health, from general orthodontic dental care to learning how to clean Invisalign trays. Figuring out exactly how many times a day we should do it requires a look at the whole history of how (and how often) humans have brushed their teeth.

Let’s start at the beginning, which in this case means: before toothbrushes even existed at all.

The Beginning

Humans have a long history of brushing our teeth and an even longer history of not doing it at all. For thousands of years, our ancestors had no concept of dental care. You might think that they suffered as a result, but there’s actually no evidence to suggest that people from those early eras had any dental health problems at all. Why is that?

It really comes down to diet. Our ancestors had no GMO-filled fast foods, no baked goods, and no processed products of any kind. The foods they ate didn’t contain harmful additives or chemicals and were completely all-natural. Whatever they found is what they ate.

This meant that they weren’t deficient in the vitamins and minerals that promote oral health like calcium and phosphorus. They all got their daily allowances of fruits and vegetables. The tough, fibrous foods they ate also got their mouths moving, scraping their teeth on accident and preventing plaque buildup that leads to tooth decay in the modern mouth.

Eventually, though, people started brushing their teeth. How did it all start?

As early as the 3000s B.C., the Egyptians were making brushes by picking apart the ends of twigs and “brushing” with those, sometimes splaying the ends so that they could reach in between teeth (sort of a primitive ancestor to the concept of flossing).

This was, of course, more like glorified flossing than actual brushing. It removed big pieces of food but still didn’t address our plaque and breath problems.

It wasn’t until the ancient Chinese got the idea that toothbrushing should include a brush that we started on the journey to modern oral hygiene. In the 15th century, pig hair bristles started being fastened to bone handles and used to clean teeth.

When Europe bought the idea through trade, they started changing it up, trying out horsehairs and even feathers as different ways to accomplish the same basic idea. None of this was terribly efficient, however.

The First Toothbrush

Despite the novelty of these ancient inventions being passed around Asia and Europe through trade, toothbrushing still wasn’t taught in schools or used on a daily basis by normal people until the 1700s.

This was when a British man named William Addis came up with the idea in 1770, after being imprisoned for starting a riot. He realized that the conventional method of dental care of the time (people crushed soot or brick material and rubbed it over their teeth with a cloth) sorely needed an upgrade.

In his cell, he drilled small holes into a leftover animal bone and tied bristles into the holes until he could glue it together and call it a brush.

When he got out of jail, he started a company that manufactured and sold his “toothbrushes.” His invention caught on and ended up in millions of households. We still use his design today.

Brushing your Teeth today

For a long time, brushing your teeth once a day was considered perfectly sufficient. However, as more and more foods contain sugars and processed chemical materials, the American Dental Association has increased the recommendation to twice a day for optimum dental health.

In fact, now they say, “at least twice a day,” to cover all the bases.

Changes in our food aren’t the only reason for the increase. Dentists and orthodontic health professionals discovered a while ago that when people brush their teeth, they often don’t do it for long enough or with the right technique. Recommending that we do it at least twice a day (some suggest once after every meal instead) is a way of increasing the chances that we’ll do it right.

Using the back of the brush to massage the gums, turning the brush over to get at the back of teeth, and brushing for at least two minutes each time are just a few of the common bits of advice given by dentists to get the best brush possible.

Though we won’t go into the whole history of flossing, it’s part of the same deal. Dentists recommend doing that once a day as well to promote gum health and prevent a buildup of nasty bacteria in between your teeth. At least it beats using a twig!

The Takeaway

Toothbrushing has a weird history. Since our ancestors didn’t have to do it, for various reasons, there’s no ingrained standard for what it is and how we’re supposed to get it done.

From the crude inventions of the early Egyptians to one English rioter’s logical take on the outdated practices in his country, the modern toothbrush went through many variations before becoming what it is today.

With the rise of sugar-dense foods and the increasing lack of basic mineral nutrition in the modern diet, it’s no wonder that dentists and orthodontists are recommending that people brush their teeth for at least 2 minutes at a time and at least twice a day.

It may seem like an inconvenience, but unless you plan on living in a cave and foraging for food as the ancients did, a modern diet means the modern necessity of brushing your teeth every day. Saving yourself from tooth decay and preserving your healthy smile is its own reward, after all.