The Truth about Your Teeth: ten top tips to help you look after your gnashers

Get up. Brush your teeth. Then eat breakfast. Dr Chris van Tulleken explains why we must change our routine... 


We live in a nation that has become internationally renowned for having really lousy teeth,” says Dr Chris van Tulleken. “In the UK we’re OK with brown, foul teeth, it doesn’t really bother us, while in America it’s very socially unacceptable. And that means we tolerate much higher levels of decay.”


Why are we so lax about our dental health, and how does that impact on our lives? In the two-part documentary The Truth about Your Teeth, van Tulleken sets out to find out why – and he was in for a shock.

“I was surprised by almost everything we found out in the course of filming, and then I was surprised by how surprised I was,” he says. “One of the really interesting things that came across was how little doctors know about a part of the body that massively affects overall health in both very subtle and very strong ways. Even little details about how to brush your teeth and look after them – it has really changed the way I think about oral hygiene.

“In the past 50 years, we have changed what we eat and when we eat, with four out of five snacks eaten out of the home. Diet plays such an important part, because over the decades the sugar and acid content of what we consume has increased dramatically, and we can see that impact on the nation’s teeth.

“Even if you brush your teeth correctly for two minutes twice a day, you will not be able to fully reverse the effects of a bad diet. What interests me is I didn’t look after my teeth particularly carefully but I don’t have a sweet tooth and I eat very little in the way of refined sugar. That’s what has saved me from lots of cavities and fillings.

“If you think about it, animals still eat the diet they are designed to eat. They never brush their teeth, yet they haven’t suffered the same amount of decay as we human beings. Our growing intake of refined sugars has massively impacted on our dental health.” 


If you clean your teeth within an hour of eating, you will brush off your enamel. So brush your teeth before you have breakfast and, if you want to ensure that sugar, acid or debris isn’t left in your mouth after a meal, simply drink a glass of water or chew sugar-free gum to restore your dental pH levels. 


We spend £800 million per year on dental cleaning products. Yet if you brush your teeth properly, a simple manual toothbrush and a bog-standard fluoride toothpaste are just as effective.

Here’s how to brush your teeth properly:

-Spend two minutes twice a day on the task.

-Brush your teeth systematically, working your way from one corner of the mouth to the other, making sure you brush all the surfaces.

-Use just a smear of toothpaste and don’t brush too hard. Tickle the teeth and gums – that’s all the pressure you need.

-Don’t rinse with water at all – just spit out what’s left in your mouth. By not rinsing, the fluoride stays in your mouth longer and continues to do its job. 


Clinical trials have proved that gum disease affects our overall health. Twenty billion bacteria live in our mouths. Tooth and gum infection causes inflammation that spreads through our body, which is bad for our hearts, brains and blood vessels. So the big headline is: if you look after your teeth you will live longer. Non-smokers are ten times less likely to suffer from gum disease.


In the past 50 years it’s not only what we eat that has dramatically changed, but also how often we eat, and that has had a big impact on dental health. After you eat, your mouth becomes acidic for roughly 40 minutes. If you snack constantly during the day, instead of sticking to regular meal times, your mouth is 60 per cent more acidic, which dramatically increases the chances of tooth decay and gum disease. So the lesson is to cut down on drinks and snacks during the day. 


One in four of us suffer regularly from bad breath. Bacteria are responsible for halitosis, when our mouths dry out. Mother Nature’s mouthwash is just as effective as shop- bought remedies. Drink water or eat fibrous vegetables with a high water content, like cucumber, celery and carrots. 


Five million people in the UK have not been to the dentist in ten years. Many suffer from dental phobia, but phobias and fears can be tackled at any age. 

Here are some tips to help you tackle your phobia.

-Try not to arrive too early for your appointment.

-Ask for your first trip to be pain-free. Let the dentist know in advance you are nervous.

-If you don’t like sounds or bright lights, bring music or a tablet to distract you.

-Many dentists have special training in treating patients with fear and phobias, so it’s worth asking if your practice offers this facility. 


Your teeth can affect your quality of life in ways you could never imagine. People with good dental health are perceived to be better educate and more friendly, to have a successful career and relationship and winning personalities.


Watch out for hidden sugars and acids and try to alter your diet to reduce them. Substitute porridge for sugary cereals, for example, or eat an orange instead of drinking a glass of orange juice. Likewise, drink peppermint tea instead of a red berry fruit tea, which is very high in acid. And avoid lemon alcopops, which have the same acidity levels as stomach acid!


If you have young children, it’s vital you teach them how to brush their teeth properly. Almost 50,000 people were admitted to hospital last year for dental cavities, half of whom fell into the five- to nine-year-old age range. One third of children in the UK have rotten teeth, and poor brushing habits play their part. There is a failure of awareness of how dental decay in baby teeth also affects children’s adult teeth, which are already in place waiting to come through when the baby teeth fall out. It’s so important not to let infection ruin their adult teeth as well.

So get a timer, because a child can’t judge two minutes. You must make sure they are not rinsing the whole time otherwise most of their teeth will never come in contact with any toothpaste. Also, the brush virtually never
touches the back teeth in a large proportion of children, so you need to teach them to brush every tooth, every surface, in a systematic manner. We haven’t taught parents the details of how to get their children to brush their teeth properly, or the impact bad dental habits could have on their adult teeth. That’s a public health message that has to be spread.



If you knock out a tooth, don’t rinse it in water or wrap it in a tissue – you’ll kill the fragile cells that can help it survive. Instead, lick it, then stick it back in the cavity – and get to the dentist as fast as you can. If you can’t replace the tooth in the cavity, submerge it in milk, which will buy you a few hours.  

The Truth About Your Teeth is on Thursday 4th June on BBC1 at 9pm