Toothpicks. You see them everywhere: minty-fresh and plastic wrapped next to the cash register at your neighborhood diner, spearing a bite-size cheese cube and sporting colorful plastic frills at a cocktail party, swimming in a martini and wearing nothing but an olive at the bar, or simply resting in a box of 100 at your local grocery store. In fact, toothpicks are so readily available, it may seem hard to believe that they could be bad for you in any way. The truth is, however, frequently using toothpicks can damage your teeth and gums, and lead to swallowing splinters and worse.
3600 BC called. They want their dental cleaning tool back
Toothpicks are primitive devices that are the oldest dental cleaning tool around. Fossils of 7,500-year-old teeth suggest that humans were using wooden sticks to clean their teeth a long time before toothbrushes were even thought about. But again, this is because these ancient people didn’t have any alternative. Here are a few reasons why jabbing a stick around in your mouth in hopes of dislodging food, today, may not be such a great idea:
Lacerating gums. If you use toothpicks frequently and roughly, you could risk damaging your gums, causing bleeding and tearing.
Damaging tooth enamel. Tooth enamel is the covering that makes up the outer layer of each tooth. Although it’s pretty tough stuff, it’s still vulnerable to the type of damage chewing on a toothpick can easily cause.
Damaging tooth roots. If your gums have pulled away from your tooth roots, they could be especially prone to damage by a toothpick. Not to mention the fact that touching exposed tooth roots with anything at all can also be very painful.
Chipping veneers or crowns. Vigorous toothpick use can cause both to become damaged or even fall out altogether.
Splinters. Toothpicks can fall apart and leave splinters in your gums, tongue and throat, which are not only painful and hard to remove, but could also result in a dangerous infection.
Swallowing. Toothpicks could kill you. In fact, on average, there are about 9000 choking incidents reported each year from someone either swallowing or inhaling a toothpick.
So what should I use?
Sure, toothpicks can remove food debris from between teeth, but dentists recommend other cleaning alternatives that are much less damaging to your teeth and gums, including:
Dental floss. Dental floss or tape can quickly and effectively remove food particles without damaging teeth or gums. Flossing also removes plaque, which can lead to cavities, and promotes healthy gums, protecting you from gingivitis and periodontitis.
Interdental brush. Interdental brushes have small bristled heads that are designed specifically to fit between your teeth. Like floss, they can dislodge bits of food and clean plaque from surfaces that can’t be reached just by brushing.
So should I ever use a toothpick?
The best answer to this question is simple: only when you’ve got no other choice. As discussed above, there are many things that make toothpicks bad for teeth and perhaps the only thing they have going for them is that they are portable and convenient to carry. If you have a bit of food stuck in your teeth that is painful or irritating and a toothpick is your only option, then it’s better to remove it for your own comfort.
But even then, it’s important to ask yourself just how frequently you are having to use that toothpick. We’ve all experienced a niggling bit of food getting stuck between your teeth every now and then. No big deal, right? Well, if it happens on a regular basis and (most importantly) in the same place each time, then that is reason enough to visit the dentist. That’s because food can become stuck due to fillings that haven’t been properly finished, teeth that have shifted or teeth that have developed a hole due to decay. And if you’re just relying on toothpicks to try to remedy these problems, you’re probably going to be seeing much bigger problems down the line.
So, are toothpicks bad? No, toothpicks are great … glued together to create memorable fourth-grade art projects, stuck in a birthday cake to see if it is ready to take out of the oven, poked through the crystalized bits of salt that block the holes of your salt shaker, and for hundreds of other uses. But are toothpicks bad for you? Yes, especially if they are used frequently or without sufficient care for your teeth and gums. And because there are other ways that are so much better at getting bits of food free from your teeth, there is really no reason to resort to some crude tool that was invented by primitive man.