“Without the hygienist, dentistry would be far behind where it is now,” said Mark Burhenne, DDS. Not only are dental hygienists the friendly face that makes your dental visit feel comfortable, but they are an essential part of your dental health! Those two dental cleanings a year go a long way.

So what is your dental hygienist doing when he or she cleans your teeth? You hear the whirring and scraping and see the pointy instruments, but because you can’t actually look into your own mouth, it can be hard to know what’s going on. When your hygienist cleans your teeth, he or she follows six steps: (1) removes plaque and tartar, (2) cleans with gritty toothpaste, (3) flosses, (4) rinses, (5) give you a fluoride treatment, and (6) educates you so you can continue with great home care.

Remove plaque and tartar

Plaque is sticky, colorless film that contains bacteria and builds up on tooth surfaces–everyone has it! Tartar is the result of residual plaque combining with the minerals in your saliva. Unlike plaque, tartar is tough, “a hard, crusty deposit that can trap stains and leads to tooth discoloration.”

Hygienists use various hand tools, including metal scalers and curettes, to scrape away at soft, small deposits of tartar. Hand scalers are hook shaped with pointed ends used to scrape away tartar on the surface of the teeth. Curettes have rounded ends used to clean tartar deposits underneath the gums.

Another tool hygienists use is ultrasonic scalers. These tools “are powered by pneumatic turbines and vibrate to break down plaque and tartar.”

Clean with gritty polishing toothpaste

After scraping away the plaque and tartar, hygienists brush your teeth with a gritty toothpaste made of pumice, flavoring, and a small amount of fluoride. They apply this paste with an airotor, a device with a small rubber cap that holds the polishing paste.

Bacteria love the rough surface of our teeth. The hygienist uses the airotor like a sander to smooth away this roughness.


Okay, so there’s nothing particularly fancy about the floss your hygienist uses. But as she’s flossing your teeth, she can point out any trouble spotswhere you have bleeding or swelling. Plus, after she scrapes away at the plaque and tartar, flossing makes sure none of the dislodged pieces are stuck between your teeth!


Ahh, the best part of the dentist visit–getting that gritty feeling out of your mouth! The hygienist will give you a rinse that usually contains fluoride.

Give you a fluoride treatment

We all know that fluoride somehow helps us, but what is it actually doing when the hygienist has us bite on that funky mouthguard-like thing and bathe our teeth in it?

First, let’s talk about demineralization and remineralization.

“Minerals are lost (demineralization) from a tooth’s enamel layer when acids — formed from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth — attack the enamel. Minerals such as fluoride, calcium, and phosphate are redeposited (remineralization) to the enamel layer from the foods and waters consumed. Too much demineralization without enough remineralization to repair the enamel layer leads to tooth decay.”

Fluoride (when applied in low doses) “increases both the rate of growth and the size of enamel crystals.” This initiates remineralization. Plus, these larger enamel crystals are now more resistant to acids than they were before.

Provide education

An important part of a dental hygienist’s job is helping you learn how to better care for your teeth! Feel free to ask about any questions or concerns you have. These highly trained and highly experienced professionals will be able to give you answers that are specific to you–because after spending an hour with you and your teeth every six months, they’ll know your mouth like the back of their hand!

Everything your dental hygienist does is backed by science and aimed to help you be healthier. As you come to understand the cleaning process better, we hope your experience at the dentist will become something you look forward to every six months!