Problems with Brushing Teeth and Toothpaste Phobia

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Written by the Dental Fear Central Web Team
Last updated on February 21, 2024

There are many reasons why people may find it difficult or impossible to brush their teeth:

Toothpaste phobia

I can’t stand the taste of toothpaste! I have never been able to use it (I’ve tried) and have a violent reaction to it. Basically, I throw up if I so much as go in a bathroom where it’s been used.

Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • If you are unable to tolerate the taste or smell of mint, there is a toothpaste in the UK called Oranurse Unflavoured Toothpaste. Originally, this was developed as a response to the needs of autistic children who have a problem with taste. It contains the recommended 1450ppm fluoride and is available from online retailers. In the US, you can only order Oranurse in bulk on Amazon. An alternative is Dr. Bob Unflavored Toothpaste (check Amazon to compare prices). Unfortunately, this contains slightly less fluoride at 1100ppm, but still not too bad!
  • GC Tooth Mousse (also known as GC MI Paste is some countries) is usually used to treat sensitive teeth, but if you don’t mind the cost, it makes for a tasty non-minty alternative. It comes in flavours such as melon, strawberry, vanilla, and tutti-frutti. The standard version doesn’t contain fluoride, so make sure to buy the “Tooth Mousse Plus” or “MI Paste Plus” version which does (available in 3 flavours – strawberry, vanilla, and – you’ve guessed it – mint). You can use this for brushing and then leave it on without rinsing.
  • Jasön Natural Care makes toothpaste with flavours other than mint, for example, Tea Tree & Cinnamon and Coconut Chamomile. Caution: a lot of their toothpastes doesn’t contain any fluoride, so double-check before ordering.
  • It’s not strictly necessary to use toothpaste. To compensate for the lack of fluoride, check out the diet tips on our How to prevent tooth decay (or stop it from getting worse) page. You can also use a mouthwash which contains fluoride – use it after brushing (and before going to bed). Don’t rinse after using it.
  • Elmex Gel/Gelee/Zel is a non-minty continental high-strength fluoride gel. This is occasionally available via mail order in the UK, e.g. on Amazon. Use only once a week (it’s prescription-strength) to help prevent cavities.

Being scared of brushing your teeth

Brushing my teeth reminds me of having to see a dentist someday, and the thought makes me feel so ill that I can’t do it. I also can’t stand to see my teeth, or I get flashbacks of past events which led to my dental phobia.

Person taking their glasses off
  • Switch off the lights while brushing your teeth.
  • Close your eyes, or if you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses, remove them.
  • You may be worried about doing damage to your teeth or gums. These fears are unfounded, the only potential problem is using too much force or brushing incorrectly. A higher-end electric toothbrush (such as the Oral-B Pro, Smart, or Genius series) ensures this cannot happen – they flash a warning light and have a pressure control that reduces the speed if you brush too hard.
  • You may not want to brush your teeth because it makes your gums bleed. This is a natural reaction – after all, we’ve been taught to keep away from wounds that bleed, to allow them to heal. But this isn’t how things work with gums. Brushing and cleaning between teeth will actually help with healing them: How to top gum problems from getting worse
  • Some people can’t bring themselves to brush their teeth because it acts as a reminder of traumatic past events (dental or otherwise), or because it reminds them that they may need to see a dentist someday *shudder*. Please consider joining our Dental Phobia Support Forum. The suffering you’re going through every day is far worse than anything you might encounter once you find a caring dentist you can trust.

Lack of motivation

I just can’t motivate myself to brush or floss my teeth!

The Brush DJ toothbrushing app
Apps like Brush DJ can help you keep motivated
  • Try using a toothbrushing app such as Brush DJ. Among other things, this app plays 2 minutes of music from your phone, cloud or streaming service – to make toothbrushing less boring.
  • Put the toothbrush and interdental brushes and/or floss where you can see them easily (not in a drawer!).
  • Walk around, watch TV, surf the web, read the news or read a book while brushing your teeth.
  • Better yet (if you don’t mind seeing your teeth) – brush in front of a mirror and use 2 hands when you’re brushing, one to pull your lip out of the way so you can see what you’re doing and one to hold the brush. Seeing what you’re doing makes it much easier to be thorough.
  • Invest in an electric toothbrush, they are less work than manual brushes. Fun fact: as of 2020, around two in three adults in the UK now use an electric toothbrush!1
  • Brush your teeth while having a shower.
  • Keep reminding yourself of the positive benefits of brushing your teeth.
  • Aim to floss or use an interdental brush on a single tooth each night. This makes it a lot easier to pick up the floss because anyone can clean a single tooth! And you may find that once you get started, you’ll do a few more. Over time, it will become a habit.
  • Stick a reminder post-it note to your bathroom mirror.

Depression and oral hygiene

I’ve never been great with dental hygiene due to mental health problems, and I think this definitely contributes to my fear of the dentist. Sometimes I will go for weeks without brushing my teeth, especially when I’m stressed or feeling depressed.

This is the advice from one of our forum members:

I am a dental hygienist who has experienced depression and is also a dental phobic.

My advice would be to get the depression under control first. Are you seeing a psychologist or a therapist? I’d recommend seeing one.

Here are my depression remedies for taking care of teeth when you really really really just can’t:

1. Try brushing your teeth in the shower (if you are able to shower). This is my go-to technique and is the only way I’ll brush when I’m depressed.
2. If you cannot do any sort of brushing or flossing, chew gum with xylitol. You will need to chew a lot of this a day to be effective and it needs to have xylitol, not just be sugar-free.
3. Try using mouth wash with fluoride in it – if possible 2 times a day.
4. Use a wet paper towel after eating to clear off the food debris and plaque from your teeth.

Gagging while brushing

Brushing my teeth makes me gag so badly that I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Cute pig breathing through its nose
Always breathe through your nose!
  • Always breathe through your nose (unless you can’t because of a cold or for medical reasons).
  • Brush all the areas you find easiest first. Usually, that’s the front teeth and the outsides of the teeth. Only tackle the insides of the teeth after doing the outsides completely, and then only do the insides of the front teeth before you attempt the insides of the back teeth.
  • A small round-headed electric brush may be less likely to set off the gag reflex than a manual brush.
  • Some people find their gag reflex is worse at certain times of the day. Choose a time that’s best for you.
  • Watch the brush head: use your free hand to pull back your cheek, and watch the toothbrush head in the mirror. If you have a shaving mirror, you may be able to follow what you are doing on the insides of your teeth as well. Why can this help? Maybe it’s because your body knows exactly where the “foreign object” is, so it doesn’t panic and thinks it’s choking.
  • A counsellor trained in CBT or a clinical psychologist can help you develop a desensitisation programme.
  • Hypnosis can work really well for reducing a sensitive gag reflex.
  • Sometimes a single event in the past can cause gagging, and simply discovering the cause has helped some people.
  • If gagging is due to past abuse, enlisting the help of an empathetic counsellor or psychologist can be a great idea.
  • You can find more tips here: How to unlearn the gag reflex.

Hating the sound of the brush

Usually when I hear a brush, goosebumps cover me and I nearly always cover my ears. I find the sound of someone else brushing their teeth infinitely worse, especially if it’s a manual brush. When I put the brush in my mouth, I usually want to scream, but end up gagging and retching in the sink.

  • Some people find the sound of manual brushes harder to cope with, others can’t deal with the sound of electric brushes. Use the type of brush you find easiest.
  • Drowning out the sound can help a lot. Brushing your teeth while having a shower works really well.
  • Or use headphones to listen to music while brushing your teeth. Noise-cancelling headphones are ideal, but you can use whatever you have lying around. Some people find that headphones actually amplify the sound of the brush, but it might depend on the type of music you’re listening to.

Disabilities and Toothbrushing

The special care team at Trinity College Dublin has created a great website aimed at people with learning disabilities and physical disabilities. But it’s also helpful for anyone else who wants to learn how to best brush their teeth. Watch videos on how to brush your teeth and get info on useful products: website logo

Visit our support forum to get help with these and other fears, or to simply get things off your chest!

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Sources of information