Toothbrush germs: can you get rid of them?

There isn’t much science on the age old dilemma of the “right” way to brush your teeth. Sure, plenty of people have thoughts or opinions on why you should or shouldn’t wet your toothbrush before brushing your teeth, and especially on the internet, we can be quite vocal about our preferences.

Some people argue that by wetting your toothpaste before brushing, you are creating extra foam to get into and clean all those hard-to-reach crevices in your mouth. Others claim that their dentists advised against this and that the water will reduce the toothpaste’s effectiveness. I myself am part of a third group, preferring to wet my toothbrush before putting toothpaste on the bristles at all. These can just be personal preferences, but each method has some impact on the cleanliness of your teeth after each brush.

Is there a “best way” to keep your teeth clean?

Confirmed in a Myth Busters experiment, if you leave your toothbrush on the bathroom counter, all it takes is one toilet flush for tainted water droplets and fecal matter to contaminate it. Bacteria can spread to anything within a twenty foot radius of the toilet. Ever since I was a little kid, this fact has traumatized me. By rinsing my toothbrush before putting the toothpaste on it, I try to avoid the disgusting mental image of what may or may not be going into my mouth.

Unfortunately, this method is not as effective as one might hope. It’s nearly impossible to escape the germs, regardless of when or whether you rinse off your toothbrush before use. One possible solution is to flush with the toilet lid down and avoid making a choice as to your toothbrushing habits all together. However, in college most dorm restrooms lack this feature.

Another possibility is to rinse your toothbrush in mouthwash before each use. Sounds like a good idea. But in this study, scientists found that there were essentially no differences between toothbrush cleaning practices to prevent contamination. “Using a toothbrush cover doesn’t protect a toothbrush from bacterial growth, but actually creates an environment where bacteria are better suited to grow by keeping the bristles moist and not allowing the head of the toothbrush to dry out between uses,” explains study author Lauren Aber. She suggests that regardless of your habits, you should replace your toothbrush about every 3 months.

In conclusion, I do stand behind my earlier opinion: you SHOULD rinse your toothbrush thoroughly before each use. There may not be a huge benefit to making this a habit, but all it will cost you is a bit of tap water and probably ten extra seconds to your morning or nighttime routine.

9 thoughts on “Toothbrush germs: can you get rid of them?

  1. Brendan Feifer

    As you exemplified in your post, there is no clear cut way to definitively keep a toothbrush clean. I did some research, and one thing can be said with confidence: just like us, our toothbrush needs room to breathe.

    This website offered informative scientific insight of the toothbrush do’s and don’ts, Anaerobic, the bacteria that causes gum disease, live in oxygen environments that are minimal in exposure. This essentially means that using a toothbrush cover builds up the bacteria, which can only be eliminated by oxygen exposure. A whole different post could be done on toothbrush bristles and gum cancer correlation, but nevertheless you post was extremely informative and I enjoyed reading it!

  2. Kateryna Onysko

    After reading this post I feel like my entire world turned upside down. I am shocked and it feels so disgusting to use the same toothbrush everyday knowing that it is more dirty than you can even imagine and that you put it in the mouth. I never thought that such a common routine as brushing the teeth may cause more harm than benefit. I think this post would be very useful to read to school administration so they change the bathroom design and put lids on toilets. Obviously it can’t be the 100% solution to the problem we face but it will definetely make some difference.

  3. Celine Elizabeth Gosselin Post author

    In response to the comment by das5959, I am definitely intrigued by the role mouthwash plays in whether or not your teeth are as hygienic as possible. I have never used mouthwash in my entire life. Despite this, I have: a) never had a retainer, b) never had braces, c) never had a cavity other than one small hole in my wisdom tooth that could be filled in 5 minutes without anesthesia, and d) never lost a permanent tooth. This may be in part because I was never a very physically active or athletic person. However, I can definitely say that mouthwash was never something I needed to keep my teeth clean, so it makes you wonder what mouthwash actually does. Maybe it only benefits certain people based on genetics? Or does it only just give you that clean feeling that you associate with actual cleanliness?

  4. Celine Elizabeth Gosselin Post author

    This is with regards to your comment, Alexandra- not sure how to directly reply.

    The powers at Web MD say to replace your toothbrush every 3-4 months. 4 months sounds a little long to me considering you’re sharing a bathroom with up to 3 other people at college. If you can’t store your toothbrush in a drawer, I would personally suggest replacing it more often to be safe. They don’t cost a lot, so you might as well if you’re really worried about cleanliness.

    I do think it’s important to keep your teeth looking white and squeaky clean, but for me, researching toothbrush cleanliness is primarily to keep from contracting colds or viruses from the people you share a bathroom with. I have never really been super concerned with how white my teeth were- you can definitely have very clean off-white teeth. When I was a baby, I fell down the stairs because the baby gate wasn’t closed all the way, and this caused a slight discoloration to my teeth, making the middle of my two front teeth appear shockingly white and thus making the rest of my teeth look yellower in comparison. Vanity is something that affects us all, but in terms of the science of keeping a clean toothbrush, I really think it is more important on how dirty things actually are than how they appear to be.

  5. Jenna Snyder

    This post really got me thinking and it also kind of disgusted me.. It is gross to think that bacteria from the toilet could be reaching and sticking to my toothbrush. This made me think about an episode of Dr. Oz that I watched this summer. He talked about the risks of brushing your teeth in the shower. Many do this in order to save time but it is not healthy for you, just like leaving your toothbrush out in the open. Hes explanation talked about how there is bacteria that festers on the shower head and as water is coming out of it the bacteria clings on to some of the water that falls. This in turn means that if you are brushing your teeth in the shower you are not really ridding your mouth of the bacteria but you potentially could be adding more. This topic is rather disgusting and makes me want to clean but it is necessary to know how to properly store your toothbrush- put it away, without a cover!
    Here is the website that talks about the Dr. Oz show I mentioned:

  6. Allison C Lightner

    Well I’d never thought about toothbrush germs in that much detail, but the germs getting on your teeth. This post thoroughly grossed me out and it was pretty disgusting, but it seems pretty true. What could some other third variable be to getting more germs? Genetics? Your actual teeth? Type of environment? Like you said, if you close the lid on the toilet when you flush that could reduce germs. But for me personally, I live in a dorm with no lid on the toilet and it will probably still be gross. Honestly, ever since I’ve come to college, I have become more of a germiphobe and disgusted by the bathrooms.

  7. Alexandra Herr

    This post really shocked me because prior to reading it, I hadn’t even considered the best way to avoid germs on a toothbrush or the possibility of toilet water contaminating it. I’ve always been one to wet my toothbrush before and after applying the toothpaste due to personal preference. Do you know how severe the germs are that tend to hang out on the toothbrush bristles? Or did any of the articles state how often to get a new toothbrush? Teeth are one of the most prominent features on ones face so I’m just interested to see what the best ways to preserve them are. Maybe that could be another blog topic!

  8. Bailee Nicole Koncar

    Hi Celine!
    I find your post really interesting! I am the type of person that puts the toothpaste on and then puts it under water before I use it. I can understand how that may rinse away some of the tooth paste and not allow for optimal brushing, but it is the way I am most accustomed to. It is also disturbing to think about how much bacteria we may or may not be putting into our mouth in an attempt to clean it. It seems very redundant to me. My siblings and I often throw our toothbrush into a drawer after we use it. I can only imagine how much has built up on the tooth brush. Now that I am in college, I started to place it inside a case, but then I found that the case was getting dirty inside. It seems that there is not way to keep my tooth brush entirely clean and brush my teeth perfectly. I am curious as to what the negative effects are of using such an unclean utensil.

  9. das5959

    It makes you wonder, doesn’t it; that if rinsing your toothbrush in mouthwash doesn’t clean all the germs and fecal matter off of the toothbrush, then is the mouthwash doing any good in your mouth? This Article didn’t give very conclusive results, but It does however, help you realize there are different kinds of mouthwash; each with it’s own purpose. The article also references an unspecified study linking alcohol based mouthwashes to cancer.

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