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Updated on November 8, 2023
5 min read

What to Expect During Dental Cleanings

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

Knowing what to expect from a typical dental cleaning can decrease your anxiety. Routine teeth cleaning, or prophylaxis teeth cleaning, typically includes the following steps:

  • Examination of your teeth, gums, and mouth
  • Professional cleaning
  • Fluoride treatment

A dental hygienist will perform each step of the cleaning. Your dentist may also examine your mouth when the hygienist finishes.

What is a Prophylaxis Teeth Cleaning?

A prophylaxis dental cleaning is the most common type of teeth cleaning a dental hygienist does. It usually takes 45 to 60 minutes.

Dentists recommend you get this procedure every six months for preventative care. Regular dental cleanings are essential to:

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

What Happens During a Prophylaxis Teeth Cleaning?

A dental hygienist will perform the prophylaxis teeth cleaning. Once done, your dentist may also assess your oral health.

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

Step 1: Oral Examination

First, your dental hygienist will examine your teeth and gums. They’ll use an instrument called an explorer to 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 will also examine your head and neck 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 plaque and tartar from 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 you can only remove at the dentist’s office. 

Your dental hygienist will use a dental scraper or scaler to remove built-up tartar. They may also use an ultrasonic scaler, which uses water flow and vibrates at high speeds.

Step 3: Prophy Polishing

Next, your dental hygienist will polish and floss your teeth expertly. They will use a prophy cup and tooth polishing pastes.

The polishing paste may feel gritty because it’s supposed to scrub and polish your teeth. The prophy cup will remove lingering plaque and extrinsic stains.

After polishing your teeth with the prophy cup, your hygienist will use dental floss to perform an interdental cleaning and remove any residual prophy paste between your teeth.

Step 4: Rinsing

After polishing and flossing, your hygienist will thoroughly rinse your mouth to remove leftover particles. The rinse may include 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 for cleaning.

Step 6: Dental Exam

When the hygienist finishes, they will call the dentist to examine you. Your dentist will check for problems and discuss ways to maintain optimal oral health. 

They may also:

  • Recommend additional treatment
  • Prescribe you a medicated mouthwash if you have gum disease
  • Give you instructions for home care
  • Discuss cosmetic procedures

Other Steps

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

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 six 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.

Other Types of Teeth Cleanings

Prophylaxis cleaning is the most common type of teeth cleaning. If you properly care for your oral health, it may be the only cleaning you’ll ever need.

However, there are other types of dental cleanings for more severe issues, such as: 

What to Expect After a Dental Cleaning

It’s normal for your mouth to feel strange after teeth cleaning. You may feel tender or sore. Your teeth should also feel glossy and smooth after a dental cleaning.

Follow the oral hygiene instructions given to you by your dental hygienist and dentist—brush and floss daily to prevent gum disease and tartar accumulation.


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

You may feel tender after your appointment, but routine cleaning typically doesn’t hurt. Your teeth will feel smooth and glossy afterward.

Routine dental cleanings are essential to control plaque and tartar, prevent gum disease, and maintain oral health. You should get regular teeth cleanings at your dentist’s office every six months.

Last updated on November 8, 2023
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on November 8, 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. Gingivitis and periodontitis: What are the advantages and disadvantages of professional teeth-cleaning?.”, National Library of Medicine, 2020.
  3. Adult Oral Health.” Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  4. Singh et al. “Clinical studies regarding the plaque removal efficacy of manual toothbrushes.” The Journal of Clinical Dentistry, National Library of Medicine, 1992.
  5. "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.
  6. Lamont et al. “Routine scale and polish for periodontal health in adults.” Cochrane Database System Review, National Library of Medicine, 2018.
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