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updated 10/16/2009 8:31:58 AM ET 2009-10-16T12:31:58

It may seem silly to relearn something you’ve been doing since childhood, but many of us may be brushing the wrong way, says Carmen Schuller, D.D.S., a dentist in New York City. Do you zip through your routine? Load up on toothpaste? Assume an electric brush works better than a manual one? You’ve got a lot to learn! What’s more, cleaning your pearly whites may be one way to protect your heart from the blood-clot-causing bacteria in dental plaque, according to research from the University of Bristol in England. Maintaining a healthy mouth will mean fewer visits (and payments) to the dentist and a happier you. Follow these smile-saving steps to perfect your dental do-it-yourself.

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Floss first
To dislodge food and plaque, floss before brushing, says Andie Pearson, D.M.D., a dentist in Chicago. Are your teeth tightly packed? Skip waxed floss — it’s thicker than unwaxed varieties — or try one such as Glide (made of Gore-Tex), which easily slides between teeth and is shred-resistant. Wrap floss around both index fingers. Don’t saw up and down; you can cut your gums, which can cause bleeding and infection. Rather, curve the floss around each tooth, making a C, and lightly rub the floss up and down the tooth sides. Rinse afterward.

Pick the best brush
Choose a soft or extra soft toothbrush. “A stiff brush can harm gum tissue, remove enamel and abrade the teeth,” Dr. Schuller says.

Keep it simple: Manual brushes offer you more control than electric varieties, says Dr. Pearson, who likes Colgate 360 and Oral-B CrossAction. Replace your brush every three months.

Select a main squeeze
No gobs necessary. Use a quarter of a teaspoon at most, Dr. Pearson advises. Pastes with fluoride are better if you’re cavity-prone; whitening formulas may worsen sensitivity to hot and cold foods.

Brush off
The key is to apply gentle pressure for three to five minutes, Dr. Pearson says. Place the toothbrush on the gums, at the top of the gum line; using a large circular motion, slowly work your way down to the teeth, then reposition your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to your teeth and brush in a circular motion down to the end of the tooth. Hold the brush perpendicular to your front teeth and brush the back side.

Swish and spit
Rinse away brushing by-products with plain old H2O, but for an added benefit, follow up with a gargle of mouthwash; it contains fluoride, which you want coating the teeth in order to strengthen the enamel, Dr. Schuller suggests. Avoid rinses that contain alcohol, which can upset the natural balance of bacteria in your mouth.

Get into a routine
Twice a day is fine, but ideally, you should brush after every meal, Dr. Schuller says. See your dentist for a cleaning every six months. If she has ID’d issues like gum inflammation, see her four times a year. Tell her if you’re on meds (antihistamines and antidepressants, for example, up your chances of tooth decay). Smile, gorgeous!

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