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Each and every morning, you (hopefully) set aside two minutes to sleepily give your teeth a thorough scrubbing. But exactly when in the a.m. this cleansing ritual occurs varies from person to person. In fact, a 2014 survey of Illinois residents found that 62 percent of respondents brushed their teeth as soon as they woke up, while the remainder did so after breakfast.
But does the timing of your morning scrub actually matter? Here, dentists break down whether you should brush teeth before or after breakfast — and how to get those pearly whites sparkling clean regardless of when you brush.
The Importance of Brushing Teeth In the Morning
Besides ridding your mouth of gnarly morning breath, cleaning your chompers in the morning plays a crucial role in maintaining oral health, and it all comes down to the bacteria lingering in your mouth while you snooze. "As we're sleeping, bacteria has the tendency to settle — we don't have [as much] saliva moving around our mouth to prevent this bacteria from settling," says Amber Bonnaig, D.D.S., the dental director of Georgia for DentaQuest, a health care company that provides dental benefits. "And we know that bacteria is what's going to cause tooth decay and or gum disease." Brushing your pearly whites in the morning helps break up all the bacteria that's been growing overnight and starts your teeth off with a clean slate for the day, says Bonnaig.
And this bacteria can have serious effects if not promptly removed once you wake up. When bacteria sits on teeth for too long, it can form plaque — a sticky, white film that produces acids after you eat or drink, according to the Cleveland Clinic. These acids can destroy tooth enamel (the hard, protective outermost layer of teeth), cause cavities, lead to gingivitis (a type of gum disease involving red, swollen gums that may bleed). Eventually, plaque can harden and turn into tartar, which can't be removed with a toothbrush and requires a professional oral cleaning to eliminate. What's more, it can also eventually cause periodontal disease — a serious infection that damages the gums and can destroy the bone that supports your teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic. Yikes. (Wait, should you be getting a deep teeth cleaning dental procedure?)
What's more, using a toothpaste designed to protect your teeth and help strengthen the enamel, such as one with fluoride, in the a.m. can help fend off damage from all the acidic foods you'll eat throughout the day, says Lauren Becker, D.D.S., P.C., a general and cosmetic dentist in New York City. "Brushing your teeth in the morning gives you that protective barrier to start your day and give you some protection from all of the different exposures that our teeth [experience] as we eat and drink," adds Bonnaig.
So, Should You Brush Your Teeth Before or After Breakfast?
In general, both Bonnaig and Becker recommend brushing your teeth before eating breakfast to remove any built-up bacteria before it develops into harmful plaque (which, believe it or not, can actually happen overnight) and to protect your pearly whites from future damage caused by your morning meal. "We encounter a lot of highly acidic foods throughout the day, whether it be fruit, juice, bread, coffee, things of that sort, that can weaken the enamel," says Bonnaig, and brushing your teeth first thing can reduce the odds of your morning meal causing harm, she explains.
More significantly, brushing your teeth immediately after breakfast can actually do more harm than good. Those acidic foods can weaken the enamel for a short period of time, and brushing too soon after noshing on them — while your enamel is still in a delicate state — can cause damage, says Bonnaig. "Acid will wear the enamel down and thin it out, so it can increase sensitivity [and] it increases the likelihood of cavities occurring and of fracture or breakdown [of the tooth]," adds Becker. "Acid is no bueno in the oral cavity department." That's why both experts advise waiting 30 to 60 minutes after eating to scrub your chompers if you have to brush after breakfast.(Related: Why You Should Remineralize Your Teeth — and Exactly How to Do It, According to Dentists)
If you typically opt to brush after finishing your morning cup of Joe to help prevent enamel staining, Bonnaig suggests doubling your cleansing routine. "Honestly, there's never been any link to anything harmful, as far as brushing before and after [eating or drinking]," she explains. "So if you were to brush prior to eating and then let's say you have some coffee that you're worried about the enamel staining, then you can wait that 30 minutes to an hour and come back and brush the teeth." Brush your teeth sooner than that recommended wait period, and you might push the color into the weakened enamel — setting, not preventing, a tooth stain, according to Beavers Dentistry, a dental clinic in Cary, North Carolina. (These whitening toothpastes will help your smile truly sparkle.)
That said, you may not be tookeen on tasting the mint of your toothpaste while sipping on a hazelnut latte or munching on an orange. To combat those unappealing flavor combos and whisk away the harmful built-up bacteria, consider brushing your teeth immediately after rolling out of bed, says Bonnaig, who personally uses this tactic. "I feel like that gives myself enough time to get that flavor of the toothpaste to settle down prior to getting that first meal," she says.