How Does Teeth Polishing Work? Is Dental Polishing Worth It?

How Does Teeth Polishing Work? Is Dental Polishing Worth It?

 Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH
How Does Teeth Polishing Work? Is Dental Polishing Worth It?

For most people, the teeth polishing part of their dental checkup is when it feels like their smile is actually getting cleaned. 
Even though your dental hygienist is manually removing most of the buildup before the teeth polishing, it’s that final step that finally leaves you with the “ahhh…” feeling.

The dental hygienist will polish the teeth by uses a powered handpiece to gently buff and remove “Extrinsic” (external) stains are the ones that build up on the outside of your teeth. There are many benefits of having it done that make teeth polishing an important part of your checkup.

Other than the minty fresh zing at the end of your appointment, what’s the point of having your teeth polished? Is it a cosmetic procedure? Does it affect the health of your smile in any way?  Is it the same thing as a fluoride treatment?

Does Teeth Polishing Really Work? 

Absolutely. Teeth polishing is usually one of the last things your hygienist does during your regular dental cleaning appointment.

A lot of people feel like their teeth aren’t actually “clean” during their hygiene appointment until after the teeth polishing is completed. That’s because it helps clean off any residual plaque that’s left behind from the manual instrumentation (where your hygienist uses those thin little “picks” or scalers to clean off the heavy buildup.) But really, most of the teeth cleaning was done with the hand scalers.

For a while, some dentists looked at teeth polishing as an elective dental procedure that not everyone needed. But the truth is, most of us have come to expect it as part of our dental appointment. Fortunately, there’s no extra charge for having your teeth polished; it’s typically included in your regular prophylaxis (cleaning.)  Most tooth polishing uses a small rubber cup with a fine-grit toothpaste. (some use air polishing) You’ll feel the hygienist polish across a few teeth at a time, add more paste, then move to another part of your smile.

Other types of polishers may be a wand that sprays out a fine mist of water with a special powder mixed in. This method can get pretty messy, but it works great for harsh stains like the ones caused by tobacco products.  

When you break it down, there are basically three reasons why teeth polishing is a part of your routine dental checkup is for:

Fresh Feeling

Most prophy paste (what we in the dental world call teeth polishing products) are flavored. Mint is the most popular, but some offices have berry flavored, orange, or even chocolate. Bubble gum is a big hit with the kids.

Polish comes in a variety of different polishing pastes (prophy pastes) and powders. Usually, your hygienist is going to pick one that’s flavored to make it more palatable. Kids might want bubble gum or berry flavor, but a lot of adults like mint. The minty taste left behind makes your breath seem much fresher after your cleaning.

If you were to walk straight out of the room after your hygienist cleaned off the tartar and flossed your teeth, you would probably still be tasting some of the buildup in your mouth (ew!)  And for people who have gingivitis or gum disease, it’s common for their gums to bleed easily when they’re touched. Following up with polish after your dental cleaning can get rid of any of the aftertaste of a gum treatment. At the very least you would want some mouthwash after polishing teeth.

Teeth polishing with prophy paste gives you that fresh taste inside of your mouth, after all that icky sticky bacteria has been cleaned out. Like that clean taste you get right after brushing your teeth in the morning.

So instead of your mouth tasting like plaque residue, you walk out the door with it feeling fresh.

Remove Stains From Tooth Enamel

“Extrinsic” (external) stains are the ones that build up on the outside of your teeth (intrinsic stains are the ones inside your tooth enamel, that you have to remove with whitening products.)  When you get your teeth polished, these tenacious stains are buffed off your teeth for a fresher and whiter glow.

Aside from buffing away loose plaque, one of the biggest benefits of teeth polishing is that it cleans off any superficial tooth stains. So, if you love coffee, drink tea, or sip on red wine here and there, the polish can lift off those extrinsic (external) stains that have accumulated since your last teeth cleaning. Anything deeper would need to be treated with a whitening gel.

Most of us get at least some minor external staining between our checkups. They can come from the foods and drinks we consume or even vitamin supplements. Even people who are competitive swimmers sometimes see dark stains on their teeth from the chlorinated pool! But since it’s all superficial, you can feel confident knowing that teeth polishing at your dental cleaning will get your smile back to its brighter appearance.

Side note: If you’re thinking about bleaching your teeth anytime soon, you’ll get better and faster results by having your teeth cleaned and polished first. It’s hard for whitening agents to get through thick surface stains to reach your tooth enamel.

Limiting Dental Plaque Buildup 

When plaque starts to form, it tries to cling to bacterial colonies that are already attached to your teeth. Since your tooth is covered in tiny pores, there are lots of areas for biofilm to adhere to. Teeth polishing catches and removes any soft biofilm that wasn’t manually removed with a cleaning instrument, leaving a smoother tooth surface behind. That final polish at the end of your checkup removes all the leftover plaque and pellicle (tiny little pieces of buildup) to smooth out your overall tooth surfaces. When the tooth is smoother, it’s harder for the buildup to start sticking back to your tooth and accumulating. Teeth polishing buys you a little more time after your checkup when it comes to a clean sensation inside your mouth. In the old days (and some places still today) your dentist would have you use a disclosing tablet that showed where any leftover plaque was in your mouth. If you were to do that before and after having your teeth polished, there shouldn’t be any more areas of buildup. Teeth polishing is like one final brushing after all of the heavier deposits have been removed with more conventional methods. As a result, teeth polishing makes plaque less likely to adhere to your clean smile!

What Is Dental Plaque?

Plaque — aka “biofilm” — is a sticky substance made up of bacterial waste products. 
Yes. Germ poop.

When you eat and your saliva starts to break down your meal, acids process food particles and secrete biofilm, which then sticks to your teeth.

Teeth polishing removes stain and plaque. The reason cleaning off plaque is so important, is because it leads to both tartar buildup and gum disease. Plaque only takes about 24 hours to calcify into tartar. At that point, you can’t clean it off yourself. That’s why daily brushing, flossing or using a water flosser is so important. Once you get tartar buildup along your gums, it sets you up for getting gum disease (aka periodontitis.)

Cleaning Tip: Plaque is heaviest along the gumlines and close to saliva glands (inside your lower front teeth and outside the upper back teeth.)

As long as you remove the biofilm regularly with good brushing and flossing, you’ll be fine. But if plaque sits on your teeth for too long, it calcifies into tartar. Want to know the difference between plaque vs. tartar?

Is Teeth Polishing Worth It?

Teeth polishing is usually one of the last steps during your dental cleaning appointment (after your hygienist scales away loose plaque and calcified tartar buildup.) Most polish is flavored, leaving you with a minty fresh taste in your mouth afterward.

Getting your teeth polished also makes your smile brighter by buffing off superficial stains. The smooth tooth surface that’s left behind helps prevent new plaque buildup after your cleaning.

Your hygienist polishes your teeth after cleaning them to:

  • give your mouth that FRESH feeling
  • remove surface stains
  • make plaque less likely to adhere to your teeth

Teeth polishing can be done with a rubber cup or air polisher. Air polishing uses a jet of air, water, and an abrasive agent to remove stains. For most people, it’s the last thing your hygienist does at your regular checkup appointment.

Ask what fun flavors you have to pick from the next time you schedule a dental hygiene cleaning! If you have sensitive teeth, ask your dental hygienist for the rubber cup and polishing paste, it's a bit less aggressive than air polishing. 

 Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH"Teeth Talk Girl," is a registered dental hygienist. She started her dental health journey on YouTube, educating the public through videos.
Last updated onDecember 9, 2022Here is our process

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