What’s something you’ve been doing since childhood, but still don’t do quite right? For many people, the answer is brushing your teeth.

A lot of us do a pretty good job, but there are some common errors that dentists see over and over again—errors that can compromise how clean your teeth are and put you at risk for cavities and gum disease.

“The most common error that I see people making is that they use a back-and- forth motion—like they’re scrubbing their teeth—instead of using a circular motion,” says Dr. Thomas Schaberg, a dentist with West Port Periodontics. “They usually don’t get all the way up to the gum line. They tend to brush the tooth, but where the tooth emerges through the gingival tissue, they tend not to get that intersection clean very well, and that’s where plaque tends to accumulate the most.” The bacteria teeming in plaque can then infiltrate the boundary between tooth and gum, causing the inflammation that is characteristic of gingivitis.

“In addition, as we get older, there tends to be a little bit of (gum) recession that occurs in everybody’s mouth. You get into a habit of how you’re brushing your teeth, and I suspect most people have done it the same way for the last 40 years. But as you get recession, if you’re brushing the same way you did years ago, you’re definitely not getting all the way up to the tissue,” he adds.

Kids, being new to the art of brushing, may have more careful technique, but “the most common mistake children make when brushing is not taking enough time,” says Dr. Emily Brown, a dentist with Pediatric Dentistry of Sunset Hills. “Children try and brush as fast as possible, and in doing so, they don’t adequately remove plaque from all areas of the tooth.” She notes that, like adults, kids tend to brush the tooth enamel while missing the gum line.

“Children generally don’t have the dexterity to do an adequate job brushing their teeth until they are old enough to write in cursive,” Brown says. “So we advise parents to continue to help children brush their teeth until the child can write in cursive. Even then, some children need continued help.”

Fancy, and often expensive, electric or battery-powered brushes that vibrate and gyrate may help, but even with these devices, proper technique and adequate time are key. Brown notes that kids may be more apt to brush if they have a ‘fun’ toothbrush, and Schaberg adds that most people do remove more plaque with an electric brush. However, “most of the research out there and my experience is that people tend to do a little bit better with an electric toothbrush, but like any new toy, they’re good at it for the first few months but tend to fall back into their old habits,” he says.

Schaberg advises patients to brush and floss after they finish eating for the day but before they are so tired that they simply rush through brushing before falling into bed. And if you ever find yourself on a desert island, he says dental floss would be the tool you’d want to have with you. Bacteria that adheres to teeth and gets beneath the gum line can be removed by flossing with a back-and- forth, up-and-down motion, similar to the movements you use when drying your back with a towel.

“It’s all about commitment,” Schaberg sums up. “People put a lot of money in their mouths. We have patients who have a mouth full of crowns and bridge work and have spent thousands of dollars getting their smile looking right. It’s like any other investment, and you have to protect it and take care of it.”