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What do dentists use to polish your teeth?

A bright, shiny smile is often considered an important part of making a good first impression. For this reason, many people make regular trips to the dentist for professional teeth cleanings and polishing. But have you ever wondered exactly how dentists get teeth looking so pearly white? What tools and materials do they use to polish away stains and plaque to reveal the natural brilliance underneath?

Dental Handpieces

One of the most important tools dentists use for teeth polishing is the dental handpiece. Also known as a dental drill, this device allows dentists to remove plaque and surface stains from teeth through rotational scraping. Most dental handpieces are powered by compressed air and spin a small polishing head at high speeds. Handpieces can be outfitted with a variety of polishing attachments and pastes to achieve different levels of cleaning and shine.

Prophylaxis Angles

Prophylaxis angles, also known as prophy angles, are common polishing attachments for dental handpieces. They are small, angled metal tips that hold the actual polishing material. Prophylaxis angles allow access to all tooth surfaces, even hard to reach areas. They come in different sizes and shapes for posterior, anterior, and interproximal polishing. Common prophy angle polishing options include rubber cups, bristle brushes, and abrasive points.

Rubber Cups

Rubber cups are soft, flexible polishing cups made of rubber or plastic. They are used with an abrasive polishing paste to remove soft deposits from tooth surfaces through a gentle scrubbing motion. Rubber cups come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Smaller cups are useful for polishing between teeth while larger cups cover more surface area on molars. Dentists typically use rubber cups with a slow-speed handpiece for initial gross debridement.

Bristle Brushes

Bristle brushes consist of tightly packed soft nylon bristles set into a metal tip. They can be used with polishing paste at higher speeds to remove tougher stains and deposits through friction. Bristle brushes should not be used near the gumline as they can damage soft tissues. Their stiffness makes them most appropriate for polishing chewing surfaces of back teeth. Bristle brush prophy angles often have a flattened head to adapt to a molar’s shape.

Abrasive Points

Abrasive points are made of plastic filaments embedded with abrasive particles like aluminum oxide, silicone carbide, or diamond flecks. They are firmer than bristle brushes and are good for removing stubborn stains on enamel. Abrasive points should be used cautiously near the gums. Their small, pointed shape allows precise polishing of tooth surfaces, especially around dental work like composite fillings. High-speed handpieces are necessary to get the most polishing action from abrasive points.

Polishing Pastes

In addition to specialized tools, dentists use special polishing pastes and compounds to clean and shine teeth. These abrasive pastes help remove stains from tooth surfaces through friction. Most contain small, fine particles that gradually polish away imperfections. Many polishing pastes also include chemical agents that help break up plaque and calculus deposits.

Prophylaxis Paste

Prophylaxis paste is the most common polishing agent used during dental cleanings. It contains gentle abrasives like calcium carbonate, dicalcium phosphate, silica, or aluminium oxide suspended in a thick paste. Flavors like mint or fruit are often added to improve taste. Prophylaxis paste is formulated to safely yet effectively remove surface stains and plaque without damaging tooth enamel. It comes in grit sizes ranging from fine to coarse. Dentists select the appropriate grit based on staining and how much polishing is required.

Flour of Pumice

Flour of pumice is a specially processed volcanic rock that easily abrades tooth enamel. It has larger particles than typical prophylaxis paste so works well for rapidly removing heavy stains in a process called gross debridement. However, flour of pumice is more damaging to enamel than finer polishing agents. Dentists normally rinse it off after gross debridement and follow up with gentler prophylaxis paste.

Stain Removal Pastes

Some polishing pastes are specially formulated to break down and lift intrinsic stains that have penetrated deep into the tooth’s enamel layer. They commonly include ingredients like sodium bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, or carbamide peroxide that chemically bleach stains. However, caution is needed with stain removal pastes as excessive use can lead to tooth sensitivity or enamel erosion. Dentists normally apply them for short periods of time and only to heavily stained teeth.

Fluoride Pastes

Many polishing pastes also contain fluoride, which gets deposited into micro-abrasions on enamel to make it more resistant to decay. Neutral fluoride pastes simply aim to remineralize enamel. Acidulated phosphate fluoride pastes also contain phosphoric acid to better etch the enamel surface for fluoride uptake. The small amount of fluoride helps protect teeth after the polishing process removes some of the enamel’s mineral content.

The Professional Teeth Cleaning Process

Now that we’ve covered the main tools and materials, let’s look at how dentists use them to thoroughly clean and polish teeth during a professional teeth cleaning.

Exam and Diagnosis

Before polishing, the dentist first does an oral exam checking for signs of decay, gum disease, or other problems. Radiographs and probing around teeth and gums aid in diagnosis. The dentist then determines the level of oral health and best polishing method for the patient.

Plaque and Stain Removal

Next, coarse abrasives like baking soda or flour of pumice are used to rapidly remove plaque, tartar deposits, and extrinsic stains from tooth surfaces through gross debridement. This gets teeth cleaner faster but is too abrasive for enamel to withstand for long.

Fine Polishing

Gentler prophylaxis pastes on rubber cups or bristle brushes are then used to carefully refine and smooth enamel for a glossy finish. All tooth surfaces are polished, often starting with anterior teeth. This fine polishing removes leftover stains without excessive enamel wear.


Dentists floss patient’s teeth to dislodge plaque between teeth that handpieces can’t reach. Floss scrapes interproximal surfaces down to the unpolished layer of enamel.

Final Polishing

Abrasive points and prophy paste give a final polish to enamel between teeth. The dentist re-polishes any areas left dull from flossing. This last polishing step leaves the entire enamel surface smooth, shiny, and plaque-free.

Fluoride Treatment

At the end of the teeth cleaning, a fluoride gel or foam may be applied to help strengthen enamel. The fluoride penetrates microscopic scratches created during polishing to make teeth more decay resistant.

Oral Hygiene Instructions

Finally, the dentist provides guidance to the patient on proper daily brushing and flossing techniques. This helps maintain the polished, clean appearance between dental visits.

Types of Professional Dental Polishing

While a standard cleaning aims to lightly polish all tooth surfaces, dentists also offer more intensive teeth whitening and polishing treatments.


Special polishing pastes, gels, or strips with higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide can substantially brighten teeth beyond a normal cleaning. Whitening treatments are typically done for 30-60 minutes several times a year.


This intensive procedure uses high-speed handpieces and diamond abrasive burs to aggressively polish away tooth imperfections for an ultra-smooth enamel surface. It is often called microabrasion when used to treat smaller defects.

Air Polishing

Air polishing uses a pressurized air stream containing abrasive sodium bicarbonate particles to blast away stains. It is an alternative method to traditional paste polishing that some patients find more comfortable. However, air polishing can damage soft tissues if aimed improperly.

Caring for Teeth Between Dental Visits

While professional cleanings are important for plaque removal and whitening, maintaining good oral hygiene at home is equally important. Here are some ways to care for your polished smile between dental visits.

Brush Regularly

Gentle brushing twice per day with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste helps prevent new plaque buildup and stains on polished enamel. Take time to carefully brush all tooth surfaces.

Floss Daily

Flossing once a day removes plaque between teeth that brushing misses. It protects newly polished interproximal surfaces that are otherwise hard to clean.

Rinse with Mouthwash

Swishing daily with an antiseptic mouthwash kills bacteria left behind after brushing. This reduces plaque regrowth and helps prevent gingivitis.

Avoid Staining Foods/Drinks

Beverages like coffee, tea, wine, and soda can quickly stain polished enamel. Limit consumption and drink them quickly rather than sipping slowly.

Don’t Smoke

Tobacco smoke permeates tooth enamel leading to stubborn brown stains. It also causes gum disease and oral cancer when combined with other risk factors.

Get Regular Cleanings

Even good brushing and flossing may not fully prevent plaque buildup between professional cleanings. Most people need dental polishing every 6 months to keep teeth looking their best.

Signs You May Need a Polishing

How can you tell when it’s time to get your teeth professionally cleaned and polished again? Watch for these signs of new plaque and stains:

  • Dull, lackluster enamel
  • Yellowish teeth discoloration
  • White film or dark tartar along the gumline
  • Increased plaque on teeth feeling gritty
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Higher risk of decay and gingivitis

Scheduling a dental cleaning every 6 months is generally recommended for most adults to keep their smile looking its best. However, your dentist may suggest more or less frequent polishing depending on your oral health status.

Professional vs. At-Home Teeth Polishing

Professional Teeth Polishing At-Home Teeth Polishing
Methods Dental handpieces with prophy angles and polishing paste Electric toothbrushes with polishing attachments
Effectiveness Removes more plaque and stains from all surfaces Less effective polish but helps maintain professional results
Whitening Ability Can substantially brighten teeth Polishes but does not dramatically whiten
Comfort Level Some find the scraping sensation uncomfortable More gentle cleaning for sensitive teeth
Cost Around $75-$200 per dental cleaning Toothbrush costs, but cheaper long-term


Regular professional teeth cleanings and polishing are important for removing plaque buildup and surface stains caused by food and beverages. Dentists use specialized handpieces, prophy angles, polishing pastes and other tools to thoroughly clean teeth and reveal a beautiful, bright smile. While daily brushing and flossing at home helps maintain results, most people need dental polishing every 6 months from a trained professional. Pay attention to your tooth appearance and plaque levels to know when it’s time for your next cleaning and enamel polishing appointment.