Written by the Dental Fear Central Web Team
Last updated on July 27, 2020
Problems with Brushing Teeth and Toothpaste Phobia
There are many reasons why you may find it difficult or impossible to brush your teeth.
Below you’ll find some tips for dealing with each of these problems!
- Hating the taste of toothpaste (‘toothpaste phobia’)
- Being scared of brushing your teeth
- Lack of motivation
- Depression and oral hygiene
- Gagging when brushing teeth
- Hating the sound of the brush
“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. I basically throw up if I so much as go in a bathroom where it’s been used.”
- If you are unable to tolerate the taste of mint, there is now 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 Amazon and other online retailers.
- 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 also make toothpaste with flavours other than mint, for example, Tea Tree & Cinnamon and Coconut Chamomile. They’re available from their own website and from other online retailers. Caution: a lot of their toothpastes don’t contain any fluoride, so double-check before ordering.
- It’s not strictly necessary to use toothpaste – you can brush your teeth with water instead. The reason most people use toothpaste is (a) that it tastes fresher than water alone, which most people prefer – but that doesn’t mean you have to like it too, and (b) most toothpastes contain fluoride.
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. Choose a rinse that doesn’t contain alcohol (ethanol), as this can dry out your mouth. You should use the fluoride rinse 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.”
- 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. Follow the instructions in the manual for the correct technique, or visit our page on how to prevent gum problems. When choosing a manual toothbrush, get one with a small head and soft bristles.
- 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 really ought to see a dentist *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 my teeth!”
- Walk around, watch TV, surf the web, read the news or read a book while brushing your teeth.
- Invest in an electric toothbrush, they are a less work than manual brushes.
- Brush your teeth while having a shower (can also be done with electric brushes – for obvious reasons, these are waterproof).
- Keep reminding yourself of the positive benefits of brushing your teeth.
- Aim to floss a single tooth each night:
“A friend even says he surmounts his reluctance to floss his teeth before bed by only aiming to attend to a single tooth. After having indulged in that night’s fortunate favoured denticle, he finds it as effortless to continue as to stop.” 1
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 one of our forum members has provided:
“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 xylitiol, 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.”
- 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 is less likely to set off the gag reflex than a manual brush.
- 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 think it’s choking.
- Some people find their gag reflex is worse at certain times of the day, especially in the morning. Choose a time that works best for you.
- The gag reflex may be due to a medical problem – if you suspect this might be the case, seeing your GP would be a good idea.
- A counsellor trained in CBT or a clinical psychologist can help you develop a desensitisation programme tailored to your needs.
- 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.
- Hypnosis can help. Make sure you choose a qualified hypnotherapist.
- You can find more tips here: How to deal with a bad 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 loud music while brushing your teeth (be careful though that it’s not TOO loud to avoid hearing loss). 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 (something relatively fast and deep without any breaks in the music tends to work well, but choose music that you enjoy).
Visit our support forum to get help with these and other fears, or to simply get things off your chest!
Sources of Information
- Derren Brown (2016). Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine. London: Random House.