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How Does A Tooth Polishing Procedure Work?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Smooth, shiny, stain-free teeth are a real confidence booster, and one way to achieve a bright, attractive smile is through tooth polishing. Many dental practices offer polishing after a dental treatment or as the final stage of a routine dental visit. Both dentists and dental hygienists perform this service.

Cleaning and Polishing Teeth

When layers of plaque build up on teeth, they harden and form a tough mineral substance called tartar. Your dental professional may refer to it as calculus. Bacteria can live within tartar and cause dental diseases. During your regular cleaning at the dentist's office, a dental hygienist removes tartar in a procedure called scaling. After scraping off the hard tartar with special instruments, the hygienist polishes the teeth. Dental polishing can remove surface stains on teeth and leaves them shiny and smooth, putting the finishing touches on preventive dental treatment. However, if you're looking for a much more noticeable change in tooth color, other whitening options might be more appropriate.

Tooth Polishing Procedures

Tooth polishing is a painless dental procedure, and some patients enjoy it. The dental hygienist usually uses a small, soft rubber cup and polishing paste. If you have severe stains, your dental professional may use an air-polishing system, a jet of pressurized air and water mixed with an abrasive agent. Another option is therapeutic polishing, which helps remove bacteria from tooth roots exposed during dental surgery.

Polishing Pastes for Teeth

Tooth polishing pastes are called prophy pastes, an abbreviation of prophylaxis, which refers to the preventive, disease-preventing effects of tooth cleaning and polishing. Dental hygienists choose between fine, medium, and coarse grit pastes to fill the rubber cup that delivers the paste to the tooth surface. Coarse and medium pastes are most effective at removing surface stains. However, they can also microscopically scratch and roughen the tooth enamel, making it easier to develop stains later. Fine pastes are less damaging and create a more highly polished finish, but sometimes can be less effective at removing deeply embedded stains.

Air Polishing for Teeth

Your dental professional may also choose to use an air-polishing procedure to polish your teeth. According to the Journal of International Society of Preventive and Community Dentistry, air polishing uses a jet of air, water, and an abrasive agent to remove stains, which is just as effective as polishing with a rubber cup and prophy. However, air polishing is generally less harsh on tooth enamel. Sodium bicarbonate is often used as the abrasive agent in air polishing, but glycine (a naturally-occurring amino acid) is less abrasive and just as effective.

Tooth Polishing Precautions

If you have gum recession and exposure of the cementum, your dental professional may recommend using an extra-fine polishing paste to reduce the chance of causing further sensitivity. If a patient has oral issues like tooth sensitivity, untreated cavities, exposed dentin or roots, or diseased or receding gums, they should be treated before the teeth are scaled and polished.

Although tooth polishing isn't an essential dental treatment, it can help patients feel confident about the look of their teeth and encourage good oral care habits. If your teeth have surface stains, speak to your dentist about whether polishing would improve their appearance.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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