Your teeth cleaning appointment—aka “recall”, “prophylaxis”, or “prophy”—is one of the most routine preventative care visits you make every year. But how long does a teeth cleaning take? Well, it depends on the type of dental cleaning you’re getting (not all professional teeth cleaning are created equal!) It can also be affected by the type of equipment your dental hygienist has on hand. If they’re having to manually remove all of your plaque and tartar buildup with a handheld instrument, it takes longer than using a powered instrument that uses vibration and water.
If you haven’t had your teeth cleaned lately or it’s been years since you scheduled a dental cleaning, here’s everything you’ll need to know about how long it takes and what’s going on at your dental appointment.
Technically speaking, the “cleaning” is only part of that hour-long recall visit. We’re also taking X-rays, recording your gum and bone levels, charting a lot of other findings, and performing oral cancer screenings. The physical teeth cleaning might make up anywhere between 20-45 minutes of your visit, depending on your situation.
Most of the time when someone wants to know how long a dental cleaning should take, they probably have concerns about whether or not their hygienist did a good job and if they were rushing them in and out. Unless you’re 3 or 4 years old and you’re only getting your teeth cleaned for five minutes, that’s not normal. Just remember that dental cleanings consist of several components and not just the polishing at the end!
These are your run-of-the-mill, prevention-focused checkup appointments. Depending on your office, an adult cleaning is usually scheduled for a full 60 minutes in length.
If you have active gum disease with deep pockets and heavy tartar buildup, you will need a deep cleaning. These “SRP” or deep cleaning appointments are typically a minimum of 90 minutes long for one-half of the mouth at a time.
Checkups for kids tend to be quick and easy because they don’t get as much tartar buildup as adults do. An average kid's checkup will be 30-60 minutes long.
Hands down, the biggest factor influencing the length of your dental cleaning appointment is how much tartar buildup you have on your teeth. Tartar can be hard as cement, making it more challenging to remove. And if you have stains from smoking, those particles are also extra challenging to remove.
The longer you wait between dental cleanings, the more buildup you’ll have. If you hate going to the dentist because your cleaning appointments take so long, the smart thing to do is have your teeth cleaned more frequently!
Thankfully, hygienists have access to powered instruments that make it more efficient to remove heavy tartar buildup. Such as ultrasonic devices that vibrate to loosen deposits, or air-polishing tools that are like a miniature (but super safe) sandblasters for tenacious tooth stain.
People who have light buildup on their teeth are physically easier to clean, so their dental cleaning appointment doesn’t take up as much time. Just keep in mind you’ll probably still be in the dentist’s office just as long because of other steps like the exam, charting, or X-rays.
Cleaning your teeth is usually more comfortable when your mouth is healthy. Any time there is tartar buildup or plaque, your gums will be more inflamed and sensitive because of the infection. When they are, touching them with anything (including a toothbrush or floss) can trigger pain or bleeding. But the only way to make them better is to remove the source of bacteria that’s causing the discomfort, which is one reason why dental cleanings are so important.
If you’re nervous about how long your dental cleaning will take because you have sensitive teeth, gums, or a gag reflex, there are extra steps your hygienist can take to keep you comfortable. For instance, they can rub a topical gel onto your gums to help them feel numb, or apply another type of anesthetic medication so that you don’t have to feel anything. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is also helpful, as it provides effective pain relief and is quickly reversible, so you can drive yourself home after the sedation appointment. Just note that these steps do add time. Try to let your dental office know about your requests in advance so that they can adjust the length of your appointment.
During your traditional/routine/preventative dental cleaning appointment, you can expect your dental hygienist to:
Review Your Medical History—Your dental team will need to screen for any surgeries, review your medications, and discuss how overall health issues may be impacting your mouth.
Update Your Dental X-rays—Plan to add a few minutes to your appointment if you’re getting dental x-rays. Thankfully today’s digital X-rays cut off about 15 minutes compared to the older style that required chemical processing.
Measure Your Gum and Bone Levels—Evaluating your tissue attachment is one of the most important parts of your dental checkup. Any areas of infection need to be intercepted ASAP to prevent tooth loss.
Screen for Disease—In addition to checking for gum disease, your dentist or hygienist will also need to complete an oral cancer exam.
Hand or Power Scale Each Tooth Surface—Does it ever seem like your dental hygienist is skipping around all over your mouth, picking at random areas? They’re actually moving in a specific pattern, physically removing plaque and tartar deposits from your teeth. Since certain instruments are shaped to reach specific surfaces, it seems like your hygienist is moving all over the place without giving any thought to the process. But they aren’t!
Polish Surface Stain—This is the final part of your dental cleaning appointment that makes you “feel” clean afterward. Usually, a small rubber-cup polishing tip is used to remove surface stains from your teeth. This step takes about five minutes if you don’t have a lot of stain.
The biggest difference in the length of teeth cleaning appointments is when someone is diagnosed with active periodontal or gum disease. Deep cleanings target the pockets underneath your gum tissues where there is heavy tartar buildup. They require patience, additional numbing medication, and a lot of time on the part of your hygienist to perform correctly. Most deep cleanings take well over an hour per visit and are divided across at least two appointments. On average, your hygienist will spend about 45 minutes per quadrant (1/4 of your mouth) during these specialized cleanings. The time and numbing medication used are just a couple of reasons why deep cleanings are typically not performed on the entire mouth in a single visit.
The average professional teeth cleaning appointment is usually about an hour for an adult, half an hour or so for kids (maybe more if you have braces), or multiple visits 90 minutes or longer if you have gum disease. Wondering how long a teeth cleaning takes will depend on the amount of plaque and tartar buildup in your mouth, how long it’s been since your last checkup, and even the equipment your dental hygienist is using. It takes longer to clean teeth manually, especially if you have a lot of buildup and stain, then it does with an electric instrument.
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