Myth 1: You Should Always Brush After Every Meal
The thinking behind this idea is obvious: To protect your teeth from decay, get rid of leftover food as early as possible. But you’d really be better served to wait a while before brushing those chompers.
The human mouth has a one–two punch to defend itself. One is tooth enamel, the hardest substance in the human body. The second line of defense is saliva. In her recent book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach writes that saliva contains some of the same enzymes used in detergent to break down starches (known as amylase), and antibacterial substances so effective that wounds in the mouth will heal twice as fast as those located on the skin. Bottom line, saliva is your friend.
So give your body’s natural ability to break down foods a chance to work after you eat. The acidic environment in your mouth temporarily softens the enamel on teeth while it breaks down food particles and washes them away. Brush too soon after meals and you’ll end up scrubbing away tooth enamel in the process. It’s not a bad idea to wait at least 30 to 60 minutes before grabbing that toothbrush.
Myth 2: Bleaching Weakens Your Teeth
Whitening products sold over the counter in the form of strips, trays, or paste work by using the oxidizing agents’ hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide to remove pigment on the surface of the enamel. At-home products typically contain a 3 to 10 percent hydrogen-peroxide level, as opposed to the 15 to 38 percent level dentists can use. The products are effective at removing surface stains but should be used in moderation.
But will they weaken your teeth? A recent study conducted by Dr. Shereen Azer, at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry, has shown some loss of enamel ranging from 1.2 to 2 nanometers, with the tray resulting in slightly more erosion than the other tooth-whitening methods. Overuse of the oxidizing agents can cause both gum and tooth sensitivity, and continued overuse may even leave some of your teeth looking translucent. Some researchers even suggest that bleaching can temporarily dissolve calcium ions in the enamel, though enamel has shown the ability to “remineralize” itself, over time.
However, while overuse can strip pigment or enamel from your teeth, it won’t weaken the structure of the tooth itself. Still, many factors, including varying thickness of enamel, preexisting tooth sensitivity, and tooth discolorations resulting from decay, affect the results of whitening. So always consult with your dentist.
Myth 3: Extreme Temperature Changes Can Crack Your Teeth
This one requires a little nuance. Yes, extreme temperature changes can crack your teeth. But don’t expect that frigid bite of ice cream to crack a tooth wide open.
A healthy adult tooth was built to absorb varying temperature changes occurring in the mouth. Tiny hairline cracks on the surface of enamel are actually quite common, and you may even spot a few on your teeth in the right light. Known as craze lines, the minor cracks are so shallow that they rarely pose a threat to the tooth itself.
Regular checkups with your dentist are always best to ensure minor imperfections aren’t indicative of a larger concern. Should you have a crack, it’s best to catch it early. Chewing can force a cracked tooth open and closed, eventually exposing more of the nerves located inside, a very painful result you’ll want to avoid.
Myth 4: A Tooth Will Dissolve In Soda Overnight
In the fall of 1950 Cornell University Professor Clive McCay was on a mission to alert Americans to the cavity-causing power of Coca-Cola. Speaking in front of the Congressional committee on food additives, McCay came armed with some rather alarming statements, including that Coke could eat through the steps of the nation’s Capital building, and that a tooth placed in a glass of Coca-Cola would dissolve within several days. McCay’s statements got the lawmakers’ attention and spawned more urban myths about Coke.
Soda’s supposed dissolving powers can be traced to the presence of three acids in its formula—phosphoric, citric, and carbonic acid, many of which can be found in other popular drinks. In fact, every morning many Americans begin their day with orange juice, a drink possessing more citric acid (and as much sugar) as soda. Coca-Cola’s head chemist, Orville May, testified that the .055 percent level of phosphoric acid in Coke is nowhere near the 1.09 percent acid content found in an orange.
As for the tooth-dissolving myth, May also suggested that McCay’s testimony ignored the effects of saliva in the mouth—or the simple fact that people don’t hold soda in their mouth overnight. In any case, attempts to recreate this experiment have shown that McCay exaggerated the claim: Leaving your tooth in a glass of Coke isn’t good for it, but it won’t completely dissolve overnight, or even in a couple of days.
That said, the acids present in many popular drinks can temporarily lower the pH of saliva in the mouth, allowing for the softening of tooth enamel and the opportunity for sugar to cause tooth decay. Recent studies have found sports and energy drinks can be more acidic and cause more erosion to tooth enamel than soda itself, and it doesn’t help they’re typically consumed when an individual is dehydrated, which weakens saliva’s protective properties for the enamel.
Myth 5: Knocked-Out Teeth Are Lost Forever
Though many hockey players consider a lost tooth a badge of honor, it is possible to reimplant a knocked-out adult tooth. A severed root experiences damage to blood vessels and tissue, but the ligaments connecting the tooth to the bone can be re-formed. The key to a successful reimplantation is how the missing tooth is stored and for how long.
Assuming you can find the tooth, avoid scraping off any dirt particles, as you risk damaging the root further. Instead, rinse it gently with a saline solution while carefully handling it by the crown. If possible, place the tooth back in its original socket, or store it in a small container with saline or milk. Milk—containing proteins, sugar, and antibacterial substances—provides the ideal environment for a lost tooth. As an added bonus, the sugars in milk help feed cells, which need to remain alive and growing in the short term.
Don’t have access to any of the above? Don’t panic. Your cheek will work well for storage in the interim; just be careful not to swallow your precious cargo.
Placing pressure on the gums will also help to reduce the bleeding and pain as you are en route to the dentist. Depending on the damage, a successful reimplanted tooth can heal significantly in three to four weeks, and become fully repaired within two months.
Myth 6: The Origin of the Tooth Fairy
The tooth fairy is actually a relatively young creation at less than a century old, and results from a combination of myths shared across different cultures and civilizations.
Europeans from before the Middle Ages were very concerned about the correct disposal of baby teeth (also known as milk teeth). Believing a witch could curse someone using their tooth, lost baby teeth were swallowed, buried, burned, or even left for rodents to eat. Rodents, though considered pests, were valued for their teeth, which were viewed as healthy and strong. It was believed a tooth fed to a rodent could lead to the healthy development of a permanent adult tooth.
Money enters the picture around the Middle Ages in the form of a tann-fé (tooth fee) via what is now Scandinavia. The Vikings paid children for a lost tooth, which was then worn on a necklace for good luck in battle. The idea of exchanging a tooth for coins advanced throughout Europe, though it did not yet involve a fairy.
The 18th century saw a rise in the popularity of a “tooth mouse,” via the popular French fairy tale “La Bonne Petite Souris,” (“The Good Little Mouse”) written by Madame d’Aulnoy in 1697. The story relates the heroic actions of one tough mouse that, after changing into a fairy, defeats an evil king by hiding under his pillow and knocking out all his teeth. Spain saw its own version of the tooth mouse in the story “El Ratón Perez” (“Perez the Mouse”), written by Luis Coloma in 1894, honoring Alfonso XIII, the boy king who had recently lost a tooth. The popularity of both stories helped solidify an association between a tooth mouse and a fairy, with the concept of a tooth fairy gaining traction as it crossed the Atlantic.
In America, the 1927 play The Tooth Fairy, by Esther Watkins Arnold, and Lee Rogow’s 1949 book of the same name helped to give the childhood myth a permanent place alongside the likes of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Today, the tooth fairy even has her own day, with February 28 serving as National Tooth Fairy Day.