Professional Dental Cleaning in 5 Steps

In depth look at a dental cleaning

Dental cleanings protect your long-term oral health.

When it comes to protecting your long-term oral health, one of the best things you can do is schedule a regular appointment with your dentist every six months. These appointments give your dentist the chance to spot oral health issues early, while they’re still easy to treat—but the professional dental cleaning you’ll get during your appointment also actively prevents cavities and gum disease by cleaning plaque and tartar from your teeth.

Plaque that has hardened into tartar on your teeth increases your risk for decay, but you can’t remove it with your regular at-home oral hygiene routine. That’s where your professional dental cleaning comes in! Your regular dental appointment is all about making sure your teeth and gums are healthy now and that they stay that way in the future.

Despite the importance of regular checkups with your dentist, we know that a lot of people struggle with dental anxiety, especially if you don’t know what to expect from your dental appointment. That’s completely understandable—we know just as much as anyone that uncertainty can increase your anxiety and fear.

To help you feel more confident and comfortable during your appointment, we’ve put together a guide that will take you through your professional dental cleaning step by step so that you know exactly what to expect.

1. Your dental hygienist will perform an oral exam.

The first step in your professional dental cleaning is an examination of your mouth, but your dental hygienist will likely start by simply asking you a few questions as you get settled. They may ask if you’re having any symptoms like a toothache or bleeding gums, what your at-home oral hygiene routine is like, and whether you’ve had any new medical diagnoses since your last appointment. Certain health conditions can increase your risk of decay, so information can help us give you the best care and oral hygiene advice possible.

After you’ve answered these questions, your hygienist will look in your mouth using a small mirror, which allows them to see your teeth from different angles. They may also probe your teeth with a metal pick, known as a dental explorer, to test spots on your teeth as they look for signs of cavities or tartar buildup. Your hygienist may also measure your gum pocket depth during this stage of your oral exam, which is done as an indicator of gum health to make sure you don’t have gum disease.

If they notice a problem, your hygienist will usually simply make a note of it and notify Dr. Staley so he can look at it when he comes into the room. They may need to step out and consult with Dr. Staley to make sure they can continue with your dental cleaning if they notice a major problem, like a failing dental restoration, but this usually isn’t necessary. Most often, you’ll move on to the next step quickly!

2. Your hygienist removes plaque and tartar.

Once they’ve examined your teeth, your hygienist will begin to remove plaque and hardened tartar from your teeth. Since tartar is bonded to the surface of your teeth, your hygienist will have to scrape it off using a special dental scraper and a mirror to ensure they get every nook and cranny of your teeth clean During this stage, you’ll likely hear the scraping and feel the sensation of the tool scraping against the tartar on your teeth, but it won’t hurt.

This can be the most time-consuming part of your professional dental cleaning, but the less plaque and tartar you have on your teeth, the less time it’ll take. Some tartar buildup is normal, but if you practice a great oral hygiene routine at home—especially including daily flossing, which is especially important for preventing tartar buildup around your gum line—your hygienist really might not have much work to do here.

3. They do a deep clean and polishing.

Next, your hygienist will use special tools to remove any plaque and tartar that they missed with the scaler, cleaning and polishing your teeth more deeply than you could at home. These tools include an electronic polisher that scrubs your teeth clean using a small rubber cup instead of bristles, a rinsing tool, and a vacuum-like tool that they’ll periodically use to suck away saliva, water, and debris from loosened plaque or tartar.

Even the toothpaste used during your professional dental cleaning is special! While it tastes and smells a lot like the toothpaste you use at home, you’ll likely notice that it feels considerably grittier. It’s purposefully more abrasive to help remove tartar and polish your teeth so that they’re smooth. You wouldn’t want to use toothpaste like this every day, but when used by a trained professional during your six-month dental cleaning, it’s incredibly good for your teeth!

Once they’ve gone over all your teeth with the polishing tool, your hygienist will rinse out your mouth thoroughly and ask you to close your mouth over the small vacuum-like hose again to get everything out of your mouth.

4. They floss your teeth.

Even the best job of brushing your teeth can’t clean between your teeth or along your gum line, so the next essential step is for your hygienist to floss your teeth. This will clean the sides of your teeth that are pressed together, ensuring that every part of your teeth gets truly clean during your appointment. It also removes plaque from along your gum line. This is so vital because your gum health is just as important for your oral health as your tooth health is, so we need to give your gums just as much care!

If you don’t floss regularly at home, your gums may bleed a little during this stage of your cleaning, but unless you have severe gum disease, they shouldn’t bleed much or for very long. Bleeding gums is actually a sign of minor gum disease, called gingivitis, but this is thankfully easy to treat at home simply by starting to floss daily! If you floss once a day at home, though, your gums shouldn’t bleed. Once they’re done flossing your teeth, your hygienist will give your mouth a final rinse with a fluoride solution, have you swish it around, and then suction it dry.

5. Your hygienist discusses the rest of your appointment with you.

Once your teeth are clean, your dental hygienist will take a few minutes to discuss the rest of your appointment with you, including potentially offering you a fluoride treatment. Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that strengthens tooth enamel and actively helps fight oral bacteria to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. It can even reverse the earliest stage of tooth decay, called demineralization, by teaming up with calcium and phosphate in your saliva to remineralize these areas.

Since gum disease can cause gum recession that can expose more of your tooth—and even your tooth roots—to decay, fluoride can be particularly important if you’ve suffered damage from gum disease or even if you just have age-related gum recession. A fluoride treatment is generally pretty quick, so it doesn’t add much time to your appointment, but it’s completely optional.

If it’s time to update your dental X-rays, it’s during this portion of your appointment that you’ll likely get them taken. Dental X-rays are only needed every year or two, however, so you’ll skip this step more often than not. After you’re done speaking to your hygienist or getting any additional treatments, Dr. Staley will come to examine your teeth.

Schedule your dental cleaning and look after your oral health.

Although you only get a professional dental cleaning every six months, it’s a vital part of keeping your teeth and gums healthy—and even keeping your entire body healthier. Plus, removing tartar buildup often makes your smile appear a little brighter and whiter, too, keeping it healthier and more beautiful! If you’d like to get started towards a healthier, more beautiful smile with a dentist near Boise, ID, feel free to schedule an appointment with Dr. Staley at any time.