Dental expert tells what happens to our teeth as we age

You’d think that dental hygiene wouldn’t be something that is up for debate but bicker we do. Is charcoal any good for us? The fluoride argument is back! And whatever happened to mouth wash? Dr James Hanna, from Complete Slimes Bella Vista, helps us set the record straight.

What are the big indicators of age?

There are two major effects that people notice as they get older. The first is facial symmetry. This is really important because as we get older, our teeth will start to crowd forward, and this is nothing to do with wisdom teeth, it is a natural progression. This is where your front teeth start to cross over, canines start to tilt forward a bit more, everything collapses in a little bit more the older we get.

The second thing is always colour. Colour is a huge thing that stands out for people because a smile can either make or break a person – if your teeth don’t match the brightness that you exude.

Our older generation has silver fillings, so you start to see the teeth become black. Not because they are unhealthy, they’ve got this big silver filling that’s been in there for 40 years. But that is potentially one of the biggest factors in teeth discolouration.

What about fluoride?

Okay. The reason fluoride was put into water systems in the first place was to protect teeth and kill any bacteria in the piping as well. That’s why chlorine among other things was added to the water supply.

This is a bit of a contentious topic. For me, it all comes back to whether the benefit outweighs the cost.

If we look at how the idea originally came about, it worked really well protecting teeth, and still does. In the classic cases, you can look at the kids in Queensland, and the reason why Queensland took a long time to have fluoridated water.

We were relying on toothpaste, or rural towns that would put fluoride into their tank-water supplies. In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Queensland had double or sometimes triple the rate of tooth decay from bacteria compared with elsewhere in Australia. And that was only ever attributed to one thing – the lack of fluoride.

So, they tried fluoride in some areas in Queensland, in particular south-east Queensland, and they found a dramatic decrease in the rate of decay in kids. What I always say to my patients is: “Look, there’s nothing wrong with not having fluoride at the dentist, if you really want it, there’s nothing wrong with having a fluoridated toothpaste.”

What about charcoal toothpaste?

Charcoal works off the same cleaning premise, which is the foamy action and lifting off the stains. As an old-school form of lifting up the teeth and whitening, back in the day it worked quite well, but if that’s what you’re relying on, I’d still be far more comfortable if you use everyday whitening toothpastes. They’re great and there is no reason why you can’t use them as a substitute for normal toothpaste.

It’s all horses for courses. If something really works for you, at the end of the day I’m just glad that you’re brushing and cleaning. If baking soda is getting you across the line, then so be it.

What are the teeth-staining culprits?

Green teas are the worst. This is where a lot of people get caught out. Basically, any tea has tannins. Tannin is a natural clotting factor found in the human body. Tea has a very good way of becoming an intrinsic stain, getting deep into the teeth. Think of your teeth as the same as your skin, where teeth actually have pores or openings. When you have wine or tea, or when you smoke, it creates a porous layer on a tooth and everything dries out.

And most won’t stop at one coffee in the morning, they’ll have two. It’s similar with wine at night. If you’re having one glass of wine, it’s very easy to have two. There is nothing wrong with having all this stuff, but if you leave it to linger or to sit on the surface of the tooth, that’s when that external stain that’s easy to clean off feeds into the deeper layers.

Enjoy your drinks, but always remember you want to stick to a 20-minute rule which is how long it takes for the saliva to build up in the mouth and neutralise the acidity or the pH level. I say to people, “Look, you can speed this up by having a glass of water on the side.” Now they’re looking at me funny and saying, “You want me to drink water in between my wine?” I’m saying no. What I do is every half hour, hour, if I’m still drinking, I’ll have a glass in between. I won’t just drink it; I actually rinse it around my mouth.

Doing that and making sure you brush at night, after a night of drinking or having coffee is really important, because you don’t want to leave those stains overnight. Rinsing with water helps greatly.

What whitening works for ex-smoker teeth?

The first is always to regularly cleanse, that’s the biggest thing. The second thing always comes back to rinsing and chewing sugar-free chewing gum. Coming off smoking, the first thing that we do before the whitening is a full thorough clean. We use a particular smoker’s pomace or protein, which is kind of a paste that cleans off that external layer of staining. Then we give the patient a whitening toothpaste to use for a couple of days that also is a sensitive toothpaste for when we do the whitening.

If the patient is a very heavy smoker, we recommend Zoom in-chair whitening, which is carried out over 60 minutes. It’s broken up into four sessions, which you apply each time. Patients also go on what we call a white diet, for one to two days, which is nothing really colourful. After that, we wait a week and then we start using a take-home kit which is the best, but compliance is always an issue. This is where we treat the person, not the teeth.

Mouthwash seems to be out of fashion. Is it in or out?

A lot of mouthwashes were created with alcohol and fluoride in them, but the alcohol has been removed. A lot of companies really pushed against it, and then a lot of companies said that a lot of ingredients were carcinogenic.

They changed a lot of the components and again a lot of the natural companies have come out with natural mouth rinses. To me, salt water is actually the best thing to rinse with.

What is the best teeth-cleaning practice?

Brush morning and night. Night-time is most important because when you sleep, you don’t produce any saliva, and saliva is the natural buffer or the natural protecting layer.

Eating a diet that’s nice and clean and healthy. You want a lot of raw unprocessed fruits and veggies, things like that, because they’re rough, they keep everything nice and clean. Biting into a lot of rough chewy stuff is great, and that’s why they say ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’, because it’s when you bite into that and chew it, it cleans the surface of the tooth.

The 20-minute rule is crucial. Don’t eat or drink within 20 minutes after brushing, it allows the toothpaste to get absorbed, and don’t brush within 20 minutes of eating or drinking. So you reduce the chance of removing the enamel layer because of acidity.

Rinse, rinse, rinse. Rinsing throughout the day lubricates the mouth, it keeps everything nice and healthy and it forms the layer over the tooth, which is the protective layer that just sits there.

Use a soft toothbrush. There is no need for medium and hard, I actually encourage all my patients to use a children’s toothbrush. The bristles overall are finer, they’re much softer. They have a lot more on the head of the toothbrush. The head of the toothbrush itself is much smaller and much narrower. You can get into all those little nooks and crannies that you otherwise miss. It’s actually good for those who don’t floss as it’s a better clean.

Were you aware of the 20-minute rule? Of why our teeth start to crowd? Of the best mouthwash? 

This article first appeared on and is reproduced with permission.

Rebecca O’Hearn has had a long career as a fashion and beauty editor at Yours, Woman’s Day and FHM magazines and has styled some of Australia’s most famous faces. Her website,, is packed with fashion, beauty and styling tips.

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