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Updated on January 16, 2023
4 min read

What to Expect at a Typical Teeth Cleaning

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If you dread going to the dentist, you’re not alone. Dental work, even a routine cleaning, can be stressful for many people. In 2019, an estimated 34% of adults hadn’t visited the dentist in the past year.1

However, regular teeth cleanings are necessary to:

  • Maintain good oral health
  • Prevent gum disease
  • Stop the progression of tooth decay
  • Provide education on oral hygiene

Dentists recommend professional teeth cleanings every 6 months. Knowing what to expect from those cleanings can reduce your anxiety and increase your likelihood of going regularly.

What Happens During a Prophylaxis Teeth Cleaning?

During a typical prophylaxis dental cleaning, a dental hygienist will examine your mouth, perform a cleaning, and apply fluoride. Your dentist may also assess your oral health when the hygienist is finished.

The most common type of teeth cleaning is a prophylaxis dental cleaning performed by a dental hygienist. It usually takes 45 to 60 minutes.

Here’s what to expect when you go in for a prophylaxis dental cleaning:

Step 1: Oral Examination

Before your dental hygienist starts cleaning your mouth, they will examine your teeth, gum line, and gums using an instrument called an explorer. 

They’ll look for signs of:

  • Tooth decay
  • Gum disease
  • Plaque and tartar buildup
  • Problems at the tooth roots
  • Orthodontic or bite issues
  • Other potential oral health issues

The hygienist might also examine your head and neck to check for abnormalities like cancer. If they find anything unusual during the exam, they'll recommend treatment or a consultation with the dentist. 

Step 2: Plaque and Tartar Removal

After the exam, the dental hygienist will remove any plaque and tartar they find on your teeth and gums. Plaque is a sticky film that forms in your mouth from bacteria and food particles. Without proper cleaning, it can harden into tartar, which can only be removed at the dentist’s office. 

Your dental hygienist will use a dental scraper to remove built-up tartar without damaging the tooth’s enamel. They may also use an ultrasonic scaler, which uses water flow and vibrates at high speeds. 

This step may feel uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to remove accumulated tartar. To shorten this step in future cleanings, brush and floss daily to keep your plaque under control. 

Step 3: Prophy Polishing

Next, your dental hygienist will polish and floss your teeth at an expert level.

They’ll begin by polishing your teeth with a rubber prophy cup used in combination with tooth polishing pastes. The polishing paste may feel gritty since it’s designed to scrub and polish your teeth. 

In addition, the prophy polishing cup might make an alarming sound. But it will clear away any lingering plaque and extrinsic stains to make your teeth feel squeaky clean.

After polishing your teeth with the prophy cup, your hygienist will use dental floss to perform an interdental cleaning. 

Step 4: Rinsing

After polishing and flossing, your hygienist will thoroughly rinse your mouth to remove any leftover particles. They may use water or a liquid fluoride mixture.

Step 5: Fluoride Treatment

The final step in your prophylaxis dental cleaning is when the hygienist applies fluoride to your teeth. Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that strengthens enamel and protects teeth from decay. 

Not every cleaning will include fluoride. For example, if you’re an adult with healthy teeth who gets regular check-ups, you may not need fluoride treatment as part of your cleaning.

Step 6: Dental Exam

Once your teeth are clean, the dentist will look for any problems and discuss what you need to do to maintain optimal oral health. They may also:

  • Schedule restorations or additional treatment (if they find oral health problems)
  • Prescribe you a medicated mouthwash if you have gum disease 
  • Start a dental care plan with home-care instructions

Routine appointments take longer if your dentist finds any oral health issues during the exam. If you haven’t been to the dentist in a long time, they may also want to take updated X-rays of your mouth.

Why are Regular Teeth Cleanings Important?

Regular cleanings are essential for the overall health of your mouth and body. If you don't visit the dentist every 6 months, there's a strong chance you'll develop cavities or gum disease.

Brush and floss regularly between cleanings, and follow any recommendations from your dentist or dental hygienist. Neglecting your at-home oral hygiene routine makes you more likely to develop harmful mouth bacteria. It can also lead to bad breath, cavities, and gum disease. 

Other Types of Teeth Cleanings

In addition to a prophylaxis cleaning, there are three other types of teeth cleanings:

  1. Scaling and root planing Deep cleaning of the gums performed on patients with gum disease
  2. Periodontal maintenance Tartar removal performed on patients with periodontal disease
  3. Gross debridement — Removal of extensive plaque and tartar that interfere with the oral exam

Summary

While routine dental cleanings may cause anxiety, they’re a safe and essential part of oral health care. 

A prophylaxis dental cleaning involves an exam, plaque and tartar removal, cleaning, and fluoride treatment by a dental hygienist. The dentist will step in at the end to do a final exam of your mouth.

You should get regular teeth cleanings every 6 months at your dentist’s office.

Last updated on January 16, 2023
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on January 16, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Dental Visits.” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  2. Johnson, J. “Why You Should See Your Dentist.” American Dental Association, 2013.
  3. Gingivitis and periodontitis: What are the advantages and disadvantages of professional teeth-cleaning?.” InformedHealth.org, National Library of Medicine, 2020.
  4. Adult Oral Health.” Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  5. Singh, S., et al. “Clinical studies regarding the plaque removal efficacy of manual toothbrushes.” The Journal of Clinical Dentistry, National Library of Medicine, 1992.
  6. "Dental Scaling and Root Planing for Periodontal Health: A Review of the Clinical Effectiveness, Cost-effectiveness, and Guidelines." Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, National Library of Medicine, 2016.
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